Maine tribal members bearing gifts visit President Chavez in Venezuela

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INDIAN ISLAND (AP) – Representatives of Maine’s Indian tribes have returned from a visit last weekend to Venezuela in which they presented gifts to President Hugo Chavez and invited him to visit Maine.

The Indians were among more than 60 visitors from the Northeast who went to express thanks to Chavez for shipping discounted heating oil to needy communities last winter. The trip was paid for by Citgo Petroleum, which is owned by the Venezuelan government and arranged the oil discounts.

A fierce critic of President Bush, Chavez has maintained that the U.S. government is seeking to overthrow him in order to seize Venezuela’s oil reserves. U.S. officials deny any such plan but have portrayed Chavez as a threat to democracy in Latin America.

Penobscot Nation Chief James Sappier played down the differences between the two nations, noting that members of the U.S. Congress took part in the visit and U.S. cities have praised the discount heating oil program.

“Visiting the country was really to thank the president for what he’s done for poor people; I don’t see any problem with that whatsoever,” Sappier said. “I have seen tribes that are at odds with their state governors but do some very good things together.”

Sappier presented Chavez with a hand-carved prayer staff and an eagle feather, which his tribe regards as a sacred symbol.

Michael Sockalexis, who represents the Penobscots in the Legislature, said he shook hands with Chavez and invited him to come to Maine.

Five Penobscots took part in the visit and were accompanied by representatives of the Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet tribes.

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