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John Goo Goo needed rakers; Angus Labrador needed work. Goo Goo’s camp was full, and there were more people sleeping in tents pitched in the tall grass down past the showers, but the wild blueberries were ripe, the weather was good, and the five labor camps scattered across the Northeastern Blueberry Company’s vast farm in Washington County, Maine, were raking nearly a million pounds of berries a week. Goo Goo’s crew had to keep up. This was his first season as a harvest supervisor. He had inherited a good core group of rakers, many of them multigenerational families who came down every year from Eskasoni, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Goo Goo was principal of the high school. Still, he needed more hands. He had raked for nearly forty years himself, so he knew how grueling the work was. And this knowledge gave him pause when Labrador presented himself on a hot Sunday afternoon in August 2007.
Labrador’s “Status Indian” card—laminated, orange-bordered, issued by the Canadian government—said he was fifty-one, a Mi’kmaq from the Acadia band, which has a reservation near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Labrador said he lived in Boston. He didn’t look especially strong, or healthy, or sober—indeed, he was slight, and slightly unkempt—but he claimed he had raking experience and he had certainly traveled a long way to reach this remote corner of the eastern Maine blueberry barrens. “I can stay with my friend in his tent,” Labrador said. He had a black knapsack over one shoulder, and he stood motionless in the middle of the cluttered plywood hut that served as Goo Goo’s office, his gaze fixed on a far wall. Goo Goo nodded uneasily and asked his wife, Amelie, to register Labrador. Raking started at dawn, he said.
“We’ll see,” he said later, as we sat in a breakfast nook in his RV. “He might rake a few boxes.” Goo Goo, a soft-voiced, gray-haired man with steel-rimmed glasses, dandled one of his granddaughters. He remembered, he said, raking when he was her age, long before child labor laws and running water came to the camps. Some farms were better than others, of course. “But most of the First Nations people prefer to work over here now,” he said.
He meant Northeastern Blueberry. The company is the fourth-largest wild blueberry grower in the United States, and it is an unusual operation for at least two reasons. First, it is owned by the Passamaquoddy, a small tribe of Native Americans who came into big money—forty million dollars—from a land claim settlement with the federal government in 1980. The best investment the tribe made with its land claim funds turned out to be the blueberry farm, which lies about fifty miles southwest of the two Passamaquoddy reservations, has been steadily expanding its operations, and turns a consistent profit. Second, the farm’s management is committed to harvesting its crop by the traditional method of hand-raking, and to employing Native Americans and Native Canadians (who call themselves First Nations), even as its major competitors move inexorably to mechanical harvesters and, where they still need fieldworkers, Latino migrants.
“It’s culturally based,” Darrell Newell, Northeastern’s manager, told me, about the decision to continue hand-raking. “It would be cheaper to mechanize, sure, but . . .” Newell took his hands off the steering wheel of his pickup for a moment, making the universal gesture—fingers flung up and opened, wrists rotating inward—for a toss-up, a balanced set of trade-offs. “It’s probably not a wide economic difference,” he said.
We were bumping along a dirt road in the barrens. Newell was showing me around the farm. Knee-high vines in a thousand shades of green, blue, gold, and red stretched around us to a treeless horizon that seemed like it belonged in the Great Plains, rather than fifteen miles from the coast in the most heavily forested state in America. The barrens are a great glacial outwash plain, with sandy soil—the remains of deltas laid down by sub-glacial rivers during the last ice age, along what was then the coast. This soil holds water too poorly to support thick forests, but vacinnium angustifolium, the lowbush wild blueberry, likes it fine. By August the air itself on the barrens is liquored with blueberry perfume. I admired aloud a patch of blazing crimson vines. Newell said, “Well, that’s a patch that dried up, actually. No berries in there this year.”
Newell was a tall, laconic Passamaquoddy, forty-nine years old. He had big blue tribal tattoos on both forearms, a long black ponytail, and a mustache that I’m going to call country-rock. He had worked at Northeastern since 1989, and had been the boss there since 2001. Credit for the farm’s success belongs, he insisted, to Frances Nicholas, a Passamaquoddy elder who managed it for the first twenty years of the tribe’s ownership. “All I’m doing is carrying on what he started, pretty much following through.” A plaque honoring Nicholas, who also served twenty years in the US Army’s Special Forces, hangs on the front wall of Northeastern’s office and warehouse, down on Route One, saying simply “Woliwon”—thank you, in Passamaquoddy.
But Newell was running a multi-million-dollar business, employing up to a thousand people at harvest time, and, even though wild blueberries are what agro-economists call a “low-input crop”—their genetics, for a start, are totally wild—growing them commercially on a large scale is not a job for the unambitious. Newell had a year-round crew irrigating, fertilizing, pruning, pollinating, fighting pests and diseases and weeds, reclaiming land and improving existing fields, maintaining roads and camps and equipment, all while building up a serious secondary crop in cranberries. He works with dozens of outside vendors, from truckers to beekeepers to the processing plant up the coast in Machias, where his blueberries must be quickly carried within hours of raking. There is, in addition, the delicate challenge of keeping Northeastern’s business separate from Passamaquoddy tribal politics.
Poverty and its standard retinue of social problems, including high unemployment, corruption, and substance abuse, are rampant on the reservation, and Northeastern’s resistance to harvest mechanization was driven, in part, by Newell’s determination to keep summer raking jobs available to tribe members. Most of the rakers he employed were actually Mi’kmaqs, but both tribes are members of the Wabanaki confederacy, and the blueberry-gathering tradition that Newell was trying to preserve long antedates the berries’ commercial farming, which began in the mid-nineteenth century. Archaeological evidence suggests, in fact, that the Wabankai and their ancestors, who have lived in what is today Maine and Maritime Canada for eleven thousand years, figured out four or five millennia ago, in the course of their seasonal migrations, how to improve wild blueberry harvests by burning tracts of land.
Newell pointed to a camp in the distance—twenty plywood huts on a bare patch of ground—but he drove in another direction. “I don’t really want to go in that camp right now,” he said. “I had to confiscate this great big rake some guy in there was using. It was a push rake that was making a mess of the berries, tearing vines out of the ground. I warned him twice before I took it. But I might not be too popular in there right now.”
We stopped on a small rise, from which we could see a crew of perhaps a hundred people raking in a blue-tinged expanse. Except for the pickups and SUVs, some of them blasting hip-hop from open doors, the scene had a timeless agrarian cast. Aggressive branding suddenly seemed inevitable, even urgent. Native American Wild Blueberries, Hand-Harvested by Real Wabanaki—one could practically see the boxes flying off the shelves of Dean & Deluca. Newell laughed. “There’s no interest in Indian blueberries,” he said. “If people react to that idea at all, it’s because they think they’re organic. But they’re not. People are just looking for bargains. It would be nice to get into niche marketing, but very expensive.”
Newell said he didn’t know Dean & Deluca, but he had been to New York City once, a few years back—on a trip to pick up the remains of some Native Americans that the Museum of Natural History had agreed to release. “We go get them, bring them home, give them a proper burial,” he said. “That’s the other thing I do, besides manage this farm.”
Newell’s two-way radio, which rarely stopped grumbling, squawked, “Darrell.” “Excuse me,” he said. It seemed that a tractor-trailer loaded with fifty thousand pounds of berries was stuck in the sand in a gully somewhere down near the Centerville camp. “Never a dull moment,” Newell drawled, putting his pickup in reverse.
You’ll probably never see a fresh wild blueberry at your neighborhood market. They taste better than the highbush, cultivated blueberries that are often sold fresh—they’re both sweeter and tangier, with a chewy, honeyed succulence—and they’re also better for you. But wild blueberries are small and don’t travel well, and nearly all of them are therefore frozen immediately after harvest. They turn up in in jams and jellies and muffin mixes, pies and yogurt and juice, or, increasingly, simply as frozen fruit. One of only three berries native to the continent, the true wild blueberry grows only in eastern North America, and Maine produces 98 percent of the nation’s crop. That crop’s market got a boost from a 2004 study by the US Department of Agriculture that found wild blueberries to be, by a large margin, the richest in antioxidants of twenty fruits tested. Antioxidants help prevent cell damage, and are believed to lower risks for cancer, heart disease, stroke, macular degeneration, and Alzheimer’s. Anthocyanin, the antioxidant that makes blueberries blue, has a particularly good health reputation, and demand is strong and growing for wild blueberries in Japan and Western Europe.
The vines are not individual plants but large networks, mostly underground, a growth pattern that helps them survive harsh northern winters. They are “early successionals”—quick to thrive in tough environments, such as the aftermath of forest fires. They are not, however, indestructible. When forests grow back thickly, blocking sunlight, wild blueberries disappear. Weeds compete with them, and diseases like mummy berry—or insects like the blueberry maggot-fly—can destroy whole crops. In recent winters the absence of consistent snow cover, presumably caused by climate change, has left vines on the barrens exposed to “winter kill”—freezing storm winds that even they cannot survive. A shortage of local natural pollinators will lead to fewer berries, and has led to the increasing use by growers of out-of-state bee vendors.
When the wild blueberries ripen in late July they form waxy clumps, sometimes lolling powder-blue above the thick green leaves and short red branches of the vines, in other places sagging below the leaf cover. Each berry has a star-shaped calyx, an opening like a baby’s yawning mouth. On the inside, a ripe berry turns the deepest possible purple.
“I hate blueberries,” Jody Millier said. “End of the day, you’re seeing blue everywhere. Trees, rocks.”
His friend Irving Peter Paul agreed. “Close your eyes, see the berries at night.”
Millier and Peter Paul, both in their thirties, are Mi’kmaq migrant rakers, down from Big Cove, New Brunswick. It was late afternoon, and we were sitting in their “camp”—their plywood hut in a Northeastern labor camp run by Millier’s uncle, Vincent Simon. “I was always here, raking with my parents,” Millier said. “My dad pushed me to the fucking brink. I said, ‘I will never come back if I ever get out of the house.’ So I got out of the house and didn’t come back for a few years. But then I had a kid and started coming back.”
Millier, a paramedic in Big Cove, comes to Maine to work during his vacation, he said, to make extra money to pay for school clothes for his children—the same reason his parents always gave for coming. In fact, though his children were up in New Brunswick, his mother was, as always, here this year, staying in a camp just down the row. “My teammates back home—I play ball—they don’t believe I do this on my vacation. So we’re taking pictures to prove it.”
Irving Peter Paul held up a digital camera.
“It’s backbreaking work,” Millier said. “The heat. I’ve seen heat exhaustion out here. People throwing up, even loss of consciousness. It doesn’t matter how much you work out.” He and Peter Paul laughed. Millier explained, “There’s a guy in Big Cove who’s working out, punching bags, wants to be a UFC fighter.” UFC is Ultimate Fighting Championship—the Las Vegas-based mixed-martial-arts mayhem shown on Spike TV. “He packed up after his first morning here! And he’s a big guy.”
Millier looked like a weightlifter himself. He had short hair, a gold hoop in his left ear, striking pale eyes, bulging muscles. He admitted to having a home gym. He flicked a hand at the spartan appointments of his camp—bunk beds with raw two-by-four frames, particle-board wardrobe, picnic table with benches. “Boy, do you appreciate what you got when you get home. Computer, satellite, AC. Fuck.”
Millier was proud of his raking. “I can rake a hundred boxes a day, when the berries are good,” he said. Northeastern pays two dollars fifty cents a box; each box weighs about twenty-two pounds. “But I couldn’t do it without her,” he said, pointing with his chin at his wife, Lacy, who was sitting on a bunk with another raker, playing a game of hearts. “She lugs all my boxes down to the road.”
“That’s right,” Lacy said, without looking up.
“If we didn’t have our boss,” Millier went on—he meant his wife—“we’d be out there partying, playing poker. This way, we go to bed eight thirty, nine o’clock, so we can get up in the dark, go to work at sunrise. It’s the women keeping us going—feeding us, keeping us straight, lugging our boxes.”
A small, shiny, serious-looking metal suitcase lay on the picnic table. Millier noticed me eyeing it and opened it. It contained poker chips and playing cards, packed in velvet lining. “We still play,” he said, grinning. “But we set a limit. We’re down here to make money. And those right there are the tools—five-dollar shoes and an eighty!”
He and Peter Paul laughed. Millier was pointing at a battered pair of running shoes and an eighty-tined blueberry rake that were thrown on the floor near the doorway. Peter Paul snapped a picture. “The tools,” he said.
A blueberry rake looks like a big, dangerous dustpan with the handle stuck on backwards. It’s made of stainless steel. Older models have forty-eight tines. Newer models have sixty or eighty and, most often, two handles. The tines are rigid, about a foot long, with sharply pointed ends and narrow slits between them. The rake is an unwieldy but effective instrument, with a cruel requirement: its user must bend practically double at the waist. Some rakers work with a swinging, side-to-side motion; others stoop low and pull straight up, stripping the vines directly in front of them of berries. I found, when I raked a few boxes in the name of research, that the density of the vines before me determined what I could do. A thin patch of vines let me sweep laterally; thick vines with low-clumped berries forced me to go straight ahead and yank upwards. It was gratifying to find the boxlike back section of the rake full after a few swipes, and turn and pour a pound of dark, super-fresh berries into the shipping box (shallow, yellow, plastic, stackable) that I kicked along beside me. The rhythm, however, that experienced rakers rely on was beyond me, and I kept finding new ways to lose raked berries, swinging up too fast or jerking to a stop against a tough vine, then seeing precious fruit scatter, lost forever, from the back of my rake into the undergrowth.
I also began to feel the burn after a couple of boxes, particularly in the lower back. Even though it was early morning, cool and misty—perfect raking weather, with the berries cold and hard and coming nicely off the vine—I was already drenched with sweat. I straightened up to find a young Passamaquoddy boy in a baggy Red Sox shirt watching me with a dubious look. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but he patted the backs of his thighs like a fitness trainer and said, “Use your legs.” I finished a third box, donated my haul to the boy, and staggered off. Now I knew why Millier and Peter Paul sat around their camp comparing rotator-cuff problems, talking like jocks in a locker room about the importance of conquering pain mentally.
Millier made certain, by the way, that I didn’t get the impression that he was the top raker in Simon’s camp. That honor belonged to an older white guy named Jesse Schaefer, known around camp as the Machine. Schaefer had been raking at Northeastern since before the Passamaquoddy bought it. He had raked 170 boxes in a single day. “The kids look up to him,” Millier said. “He just don’t stop. Won’t take no energy drink or a pop from us, just water. Even in bad berries, he’ll hit a hundred. He’s kind of a hermit. Lives in a tent. He used to camp way over there in a gully, then gradually, year by year, he moved over toward here. My mom makes bannock, Indian bread, and always takes him the extra. Bowl of soup, whatever.”
Not all of Millier’s experiences with local white people had been so convivial. “We take a lot of racism, discrimination, here,” he told me. “Once, my wife and I were at a pay phone in Machias, and these two guys backed up their pickup right against the pay phone and started revving the engine. If that happened back home, I would have pulled them out of the truck and beat the living shit out of them. I mean, in Canada I fight, I back myself up. But here, I swallow my pride because it’s not my country.”
It isn’t, and it is. The Canadian Mi’kmaqs—there is also a band of American Mi’kmaqs—have always enjoyed free border crossing rights. These rights were formalized in 1794, under the Jay Treaty. They can live and work in the United States, get a social security number, and exercise a version of dual citizenship. There are Canadian Mi’kmaqs fighting as US soldiers in Iraq. Thousands live in and around Boston. At the international border on their way to the blueberry harvest, migrant rakers say, they have always just showed their Indian Status cards and been waved through. The Passamaquoddy, whose territory at the time when the Europeans first arrived straddled what is today the border, still have a small community on the Canadian side, and they also move freely back and forth. So do local whites.
All that is about to change. In 2007 the Department of Homeland Security instituted a requirement that all travellers arriving in the United States by air must carry a passport. On June 1, 2009, the requirement will extend to land travel. And, unless exceptions can be negotiated, it will include First Nations people.