Henry Bear: A challenging life, a challenge for Congress

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LEWISTON — Growing up among French-speaking immigrants in the slums of Lewiston, Henry Bear starting working before his age reached double digits, peddling everything from apples to firewood to his impoverished neighbors.

When his family shattered amid the social and financial pressures, his mother spiraled into depression and his father into drunkenness.

It got so bad that Bear and his six sisters wound up in foster homes. He dropped out of school and joined the Coast Guard at 17, seeking a better life.

Now, at age 61, he’s on a new quest to secure a political office that nobody in those run-down apartments could have imagined for him or anyone living there: a spot in the U.S. Congress.

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Bear, who serves in the Maine House as the the non-voting representative of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, declared recently that he would enter the 2nd District U.S. House race as a new member of the Green Party.

If Bear wins, he would be the first Native American member of Congress from New England and the first in more than a century to claim a House seat from the East Coast.

Bear said he thought his parents, both dead, would be tickled and proud to see their oldest son aiming so high.

He came to his old hometown last week to try to find a good spot for a campaign headquarters, probably on Lisbon Street, where he can set up a base for a long-shot bid to knock out U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a two-term Republican who is up for re-election in 2018.

In addition to the Green Party’s Bear, six Democrats are vying for the job, including state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, whom Bear called “a good friend” and “a great guy.” There’s also at least one independent, Portland lawyer Tiffany Bond.

So it’s shaping up to be a crowded field.

One summer day

One day at the age of 10, after a successful stint selling arts and crafts door to door, Bear returned home to find his mother sobbing and all of his siblings gone.

“The state came and got ’em,” she told the boy. “Wait right here. They’re going to come get you, too.”

Bear didn’t wait.

He said he took off to a ramshackle little camp he’d created for himself by a railroad trestle across the Androscoggin River, a place he could hang out where nobody could find him.

“I’d sleep under that bridge right in the middle of the river,” Bear said.

He held out for a couple of weeks before he got lonely enough to return home, ready to embrace his fate.

“Go ahead and call them,” he told his mom.

Boyhood

Bear was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in May 1956, smack in the middle of the post-war Baby Boom, almost exactly nine months after his parents got married.

His father belonged to the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, hailing from one of many Native American families in Maine who made a living peddling goods, picking apples, raking blueberries, digging potatoes and other temporary work.

He wound up doing all sorts of jobs, too, including helping to clear the land north of Gardiner for construction of a Maine Turnpike extension and overseeing boot production in a Lewiston factory.

His French Canadian mother, who probably had some Indian blood, kept busy raising children in their Roman Catholic household and earning some money sewing moccasins.

Most of the time, they lived “down in Little Canada” with a mass of immigrants who worked in the mills, took home piecework to earn a little extra and struggled to get by.

Bear remembers going to the shore to catch mackerel and then selling the fish by “running up and down the stairs” all through the neighborhood. They’d also pick blueberries near the interstate in New Gloucester that they’d hawk for 50 cents a quart.

They’d pick up free wood in Topsham, he said, and sell it to people who dumped it in their basements to fuel old-fashioned boilers for heat.

For his help, Bear said, he’d get the change in his father’s pockets, sometimes as much as $3.

They’d get sandwiches out once in a while, or a Moxie that he’d mix with milk.

What he learned from his father, he said, is that work is a constant.

“He told me, ‘Never put your hammer down,’” Bear said, “’even when you’re making baskets.’”

Coming undone

Bear’s family started to disintegrate well before the day the state Department of Health and Human Services came knocking on his mother’s door.

There wasn’t enough money in a household that depended on food stamps and secondhand clothes, but there was something more.

Bear said his mother’s family never quite accepted the Native American man who married their daughter. There was, he said, “a lot of racism” that he didn’t quite understand at the time.

That wasn’t all of it, though.

His father liked to drink and socialize, sometimes bringing his guitar to a bar along with his son, whom he’d plop on a bar stool while he sang favorites like “Little Brown Jug.”

At some point, Bear’s mother sought a protective order to keep his father away from her and soon divorced him.

The children ended up living with their mother in dire poverty while his father drank. Bear said his dad could never get over it.

“All his life he would love her,” Bear said, still lamenting whatever had happened when he died at age 70 decades later.

Given all of the work and hard times, it’s not surprising that Bear’s education suffered.

At school, Bear said, he always felt he was treated differently than most of the children, perhaps because he was so poor, perhaps because of his heritage.

“There was a stigma and we felt it,” he said. “I was alone, definitely treated as if I was different.”

Many classmates had little to do with him, he said, though those who did remain his solid friends.

Cousin Rick Boucher remembered visiting Bear’s mother’s home shortly before the state stepped in.

Though his family struggled, too, he said it struck him even then how poor his aunt and cousins were.

“You had nothing,” Boucher told Bear.

Ultimately, Bear’s mother couldn’t do it any longer.

“She had a nervous breakdown,” and the state intervened, Bear said.

Moving on

It turned out that foster care wasn’t bad.

During the next seven years, Bear stayed with four foster families in Auburn, each treating him kindly.

Bear said he benefited from seeing how other people lived and absorbed some of their values and ideas along the way.

It may not have been ideal to be separated from his parents and his siblings, he said, “but we were safer and we were cared for.”

What he appreciated most, however, was the willingness of his foster parents to let him spend time with his father and with tribal members. By age 13, he was able to make trips to the reservation in the Maliseet Tribal Lands within the St. John River basin that straddled the northern border of Maine.

He said that exposure to the tribe made him realize “that I wasn’t so different” from them, that he shared a proud heritage, that he had a people abused by history but still intact.

The federal government formally recognized the Houlton Band in 1980.

Bear learned he’d actually lived there for nearly two years after his birth, in a house his father built. But they’d returned to Lewiston because his mother “couldn’t handle it.”

He learned years later when DHHS let him review his case file that his father had tried repeatedly to gain custody of the children and that bureaucrats thought he’d done well making the case. But they still turned him down.

Bear said he’s sure the state had a deliberate policy of keeping Native American children away from tribal influence as much as possible. It wanted to see Indians assimilated into the wider culture instead of tied to their people and history, he said.

A career

Bear’s hope that the Coast Guard would offer a path to something better proved altogether true.

He quickly met and married Violet Dotson, an Army brat from Virginia who was part of the first group of women to go to boot camp.

She helped him get his General Educational Development certificate and stood by him as he embarked on a 15-year career with the service. They have four daughters, all of whom live in Maine now. They also have 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

He learned about communications and cryptology and moved up the ranks in the service, ending up as a recruiter in New Hampshire during a presidential primary season that made it possible for him to meet President Ronald Reagan and have dinner with Vice President George H.W. Bush.

A lifelong Republican, he found both of them charming and discovered they were “just like us” in real life, a revelation that in some ways opened the door to politics for Bear.

He moved to the Maliseet reservation where he discovered “an acceptance you can only appreciate if you’ve grown up in four foster homes.”

“I learned that there were a lot of people who looked like me up there, thousands of them, and a couple hundred of them were my cousins,” Bear said.

He soon wound up as president of the Central Maine Indian Council and not long after was elected as a tribal council member.

Living in a cedar log cabin that family members helped him build, Bear watched as a relative snagged a salmon out of the river with his bare hands. Those fish led him to college and law school, paid for by the tribe, so he could lend a hand with the Maliseets’ fight to hold on to rights guaranteed long ago by treaty.

As an attorney who set up shop in the house his father built on the reservation years earlier, he represented mostly tribal members in various cases that earned him payment in everything from fiddleheads to fish.

“I got a lot of salmon, deer, bear, bread, and whatever hunters, cooks and fishermen might be able to give me,” Bear said. Cash, though, was rare.

To supplement his income, he also works as a commercial fisherman, a forester and more. He said he tries to hold at least five jobs simultaneously to ensure he’ll have a steady income. Since 2013, he’s held the State House seat as well.

Bear became a Democrat when he thought he might run for a different House seat in Aroostook County, but that fell through. Switching to the Green Party last month to run for Congress suits him as well, he said, because it stands for a “healthy and prosperous community, a progressive and transparent government, and a safer and more inclusive world community.”

Hope

After starting off with so few prospects, it may seem that Bear’s hope to reach Capitol Hill is out of reach.

But he has a dim memory of another, bigger kid in the old neighborhood just down the street from a landmark eatery, Simones’ Hot Dog Stand, a fellow who also came from poverty and family distress.

That guy is Paul LePage, who’s a year away from finishing his second term as Maine’s governor.

scollins@sunjournal.com

Henry Bear, a Green Party candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, is challenging U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin for his seat. Bear was in Lewiston this week looking for a place to rent for his campaign office. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Henry Bear, a Green Party candidate in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, right, is challenging U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin for his seat. Bear walked down Lisbon Street in Lewiston earlier this week looking for a place to rent for his campaign office. He was with his wife, Violet, center, and cousin Rick Boucher of Auburn, left. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

2017 Sun Journal head and shoulders photo of Henry Bear.  (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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  • Suzan Labrie

    I do not remember growing up in the “slums” of Lewiston, as the writer of this piece labels “Little Canada”. What I gain from this article is a remarkable story of a true American,who despite state “intervention” was able to climb out of his circumstances to fulfill the dreams his parents had for him and his own aspirations. I am racking my brain to discover if I lived next to this impoverished family, as his features look vaguely familiar. I spent the first 9 years of my life in a tenement on River Street and we always thought we were living well. My father was a patrolman for the City of Lewiston and often worked double shifts to provide for our little family of three. I was sent to the nuns in Sabattus to be cared for at the age of three so my mother could work full time at Murhy’s Fur Co., she has always claimed it was the best “day care” a mother could hope for in the late fifties and early sixties. In any case,the reason I am commenting is that in any future articles that this writer and others on your staff intend to opine about the conditions of “Little Canada”, I would respectfully ask that you omit the word “slums”. It is an arrogant and derisive term used to diminish the people that once inhabited these tenements. My home on River Street was demolished by fire many years ago but I have clear memories of the many hard working women who worked long hours in the mills and the shops and came home and spent many more hours cleaning,cooking,washing and taking work home with them so that their households and their neighborhoods were clean,healthy and wholesome as they could be. I have a slew of living acquaintances including my mother whose ancestors emigrated from Canada who would weep with shame and be shocked that the writers of your paper would dishonor their heritage by casually referring to their homes as “slums.” Thank you for considering my suggestion that you choose your words carefully!!

    • RegMainer

      I agree with you. I had family that lived in Little Canada. Multiple generations. They were blue-collar French-Canadians, hard-working, and family oriented. The worked the many mills which sustained this town for a century and a half. Slums? From a writer that isn’t even from Lewiston and apparently knows nothing about its history. Little Canada wasn’t rich, that’s true. But back then people weren’t obsessed with money. Neighborhoods were much more tight-knit. If your family was strong, you had a job, and a place to live, you lived a good life. So did your neighbors.