TOWNSHIP 19 (AP) – With a cadence that has swept Maine’s vast swaths of wild blueberries for generations, hundreds of Micmac and Passamaquoddy Indians stoop in the August sun, dragging rakes across fields that shimmer blue.

It’s a gentle and slow swoosh-swoosh-swoosh that belies the crippling intensity of a harvest that is as much a culture as a business.

The rhythm breaks when a low rumbling in the distance draws the rakers’ attention. A convoy of mechanical harvesters, massive tractors that do the work of dozens of people, rolls past headed to another company’s fields.

“They’re OK as long as they keep going,” says Carl Jillson, a 45-year-old Passamaquoddy from the nearby Pleasant Point reservation.

He has little to fear. Though mechanization has come to dominate the state’s wild blueberry industry, tradition trumps efficiency for the Passamaquoddy-owned Northeastern Blueberry Company. It has vowed never to replace its rakers with machines.

It’s a tradition with dividends beyond the balance sheet: The chance to continue a fading heritage.

“I’ve been raking probably since 40 years,” says Mary Francis, a Micmac from Eskasoni, Nova Scotia. “I like it here. I grew up here. My parents brought me here when I was a baby. I brought my children. Now my grandchildren.”

Smaller, tangier and with a more distinct blueberry flavor than their cultivated cousins, Maine’s wild blueberries are a $35 million crop. Because their tender flesh is easily bruised, it is rare to find them fresh outside the state. Most are frozen and sold to food processors.

The berries – called “low bush” because they grow in clusters on ankle-high plants – became an industry in the 1860s, when the Civil War created a demand for fruit to feed Union troops. By the 1960s, American Indians, especially Canadian Micmacs, provided most of the labor.

But as annual production grew to the current 60 million pounds – a quarter of the North American crop – it wasn’t enough. Companies added tractors and hired other migrant workers. Today, only a fifth of the blueberries are hand harvested, mostly by Hispanics.

In the midst of this squeeze on Indian workers, the Passamaquoddy in 1980 were among three tribes to win an $82 million land settlement from the state. With their share, the tribe bought the 1,800-acre Northeastern Blueberry in Maine’s remote Downeast region, about 200 miles north of Portland.

Now one of the nation’s largest blueberry producers, the company this year harvested 3.2 million pounds in under two weeks. It is expected to pump $500,000 into each of the Passamaquoddy’s two reservations several hours away, where poverty is common and unemployment can reach 50 percent.

The Micmac also benefit, still providing most of the harvest labor for the Passamaquoddy, who number only about 2,000.

Though success has allowed the Passamaquoddy to modernize some aspects of the operation, including adding irrigation and improving the conditions at the worker camps, the harvest itself has been virtually unchanged for decades.

Every August, as many as 1,000 workers – including about 200 Passamaquoddy and a smattering of locals – gather in the so-called blueberry barrens. The fields crackle with a banter of English and American Indian languages, the latter sounding a little Asian, a little French.

Rakers with jobs on the reservation use vacation time to join the harvest. Many others receive public assistance. Maine officials ramp up social services – including a mobile medical clinic and a school for the youngest children – to ease the stay for all of them.

Five camps scattered around the fields are home during the short harvest. With their plywood cabins and dirt paths, they have the look of poverty, but the rich feel of family. Long days are capped with evenings of poker and bingo in a dirt-floor community center. Guitars are played on stoops, meals and beers shared, campfires lit.

“As native people, we used to have this perspective of ‘we’ and ‘us’, but that’s changed to ‘me’,” says Patricia Neptune, a 42-year-old Passamaquoddy from Pleasant Point. “When we’re out here working together, taking care of one another, I love it. It becomes ‘we’ again.”

The harvest begins before dawn, when the sky is blue and red and the berries are dewy. Whatever the weather, the work will stretch 12 hours, six days a week. Grandparents, parents and teens rake side-by-side as Johnny Cash and traditional American Indian drumming blare from competing stereos.

This is brutal work that leaves muscles aching for days after. The rakes – which resemble large dustpans with long teeth – are swept through the plants and gently pulled up, separating the berries from the greenery. Weeds and debris catch at the rakes, and considerable skill and strength are needed to move swiftly.

The blueberries gather at the back of the rake, then are dumped into plastic bins that hold about 22 pounds, or 32 pints. The best rakers can fill a bin in minutes, totaling 100 or more a day. Most adults average 40 or 50 bins.

For some, teamwork is key. Jody Milliea, a 34-year-old Micmac from Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, does 120 bins or more a day, thanks in part to his fiancee, who drags the bins back to the roadside to be stacked, counted and trucked away directly to processors.

No one is getting rich. Pay is $2.50 a bin, less if there is too much debris mixed in. Workers also must buy their rakes, which run $60 or more, and pay for their food and transportation during the harvest.

“I don’t know why we do it,” says Patsy Clement, a 46-year-old Micmac from Elsipogtog, New Brunswick. “Every year I say, ‘Oh! I’m not coming back.’ But within a few months I just can’t wait to get back. It’s who we are. We just have to come.”

For most, the reason is simple – the next generation. Like Clement, who raked alongside her 16-year-old son, many rakers use the money to buy school clothes for children or grandchildren. But the money is secondary to the culture, which everyone says must be passed on.

“I used to hate this as a kid,” says Milliea, an ambulance driver raking during his vacation. “I used to say, once I’m of age and I move out of the house, I’m never coming back. But once I grew up and I had a kid, I was grateful my dad had pushed me.”

In Simon Camp, temporary home to 120 Micmac rakers, the end of the harvest was celebrated with a potluck dinner. Women returned early from the fields to make soups rich with beef and tomatoes, stews thick with potatoes, and dense, chewy Indian bread.

But one thing seemed missing from the spread, which consumed three picnic tables. There wasn’t a single blueberry.

Vincent Simon, the crew leader for whom the camp is named, laughed, saying he’d never noticed it before.

“We never have it,” he says. “I think people are tired of seeing them on the fields all day.”


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