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Barren’s End

ISSUE:  Spring 2009
A raker dumping a rakeful of berries into a wooden box.
The Chewonki Foundation / CC

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.

At the lower edge of John Goo Goo’s camp, a small group of bachelor rakers from Nova Scotia was gathered outside a blue tent. These were young men who were not being kept in line by women. They had not come to Maine to earn money for school clothes. They were here to earn, but this hot, dry afternoon was dedicated to kicking back in beach chairs with coolers full of Budweiser and Smirnoff Ice. Noel Richard Denny, twenty-four, from Cape Breton, said he had been a student at John Goo Goo’s school, though he only got to tenth grade. Denny had a round head, close-cropped hair, and a booming voice. Matthew Robinson, also twenty-four, from Shubenacadie, said he had been coming to this camp for ten years. Goo Goo was cleaning it up this year, he said, “getting classier people, more families. It used to be more of a party camp.” Both Denny and Robinson wore baggy boardshorts, their broad chests shirtless. There was talk of a trip to a local swimming hole.

“But not the one over there with the leeches,” Denny said.

“And not the one down there with the snapping turtles.”

“No, the other one.”

The problem was, they didn’t have a car. Robinson said he wished he was down at the Centerville camp. “The berries might be bad, but it’s closer to town. You don’t have to drive for an hour down some ghetto road like here.” He frowned, squinting, at a ribbon of farm road in the distance, running south across the barrens. Some ghetto road? The ride out to John Goo Goo’s camp, which was probably ten miles, true, from the nearest village, deserved, I thought, three Michelin stars for pure scenic glory. Robinson, whose friends call him Arch, had an odd haircut—a bushy blond Mohawk, which seemed to be growing out—and a wide, high-cheekboned face. He caught me staring at a nasty mess of scars on his right shoulder and upper arm.

“New Rochelle, New York,” he said. “We were line-striping on 95 one night. Our crash truck went off someplace and this drunk came right into us, took out the whole crew. Everything caught fire, my jacket melted. It had three stripes right here.” He pointed to three raised scars, all symmetrical, like chevrons. “I worked all over New England, and that’s the craziest road I seen.”

A huge man, also shirtless, with scraggly gray hair and a pale, barrel-shaped belly, appeared in our midst, holding a steaming slice of meat out at arms-length.

“What the hell’s that?” Denny asked. He sounded delighted.


The meat went to me, as the guest. I found it tough but tasty. Everybody watched me chew.

“We got deer, too,” said the big man. “You all want some?”

Everybody did, and paper plates, each loaded with two slabs of freshly cooked game, started arriving from the big guy’s campsite, which was back in a poplar grove behind the blue tent. We ate with our fingers. The food was fine, especially the deer. “This is young buck deer,” Denny said. “The moose is older. But it’s from Maine, not Nova Scotia, you can tell.”


“Cape Breton moose, they just eat moose reeds, up in the bogs, in the highlands, so it’s saltier and more tender. The Maine moose eat from these oak trees, so their meat’s tougher. We don’t need a license to hunt moose, so we hunt them a lot. We can go hunt moose right now.”

“Yeah, but he’ll have a lot of fat,” Robinson said. “Your dog will get big, but for you it’s better to wait till the moose is in rut. Then it’s all muscle. That’s the best.”

“It’s like a thousand pounds of meat.”

“But first you gotta hook up your grandmother.”


“All you need to find moose is a Pringles can and a shoelace,” Robinson said. “You wet the shoelace, and draw it down, and make this certain sound.” He made a loud, eerie, grunting noise, playing an invisible Pringles can. Denny, a natural enthusiast, produced an even stranger, more belly-driven sound, his eyes bulging. “You do it right, you don’t even need to go in the woods,” Robinson said. “He’ll just come right out to you.”

A young couple who had been lying, entwined, napping in the tall grass near the blue tent, woke up—roused, perhaps, by the wonderful smell of the meat, or maybe it was the moose calls. They sleepily joined us. “That’s Tecumseh,” Denny said, nodding at the young man, who was dark-skinned and quiet and wore blue-tinted sunglasses. Tecumseh cracked a beer. “He’s from Africa,” Denny said, and Robinson laughed. Nobody introduced Tecumseh’s girlfriend.

A half dozen young teenagers from the camp proper showed up and tried to join us. One carried a shiny pellet pistol, which he fired—way too casually, I thought—into the trees above my head. My companions shooed them away. “People are drinking here,” they said. “No kids.”

Then, as if summoned, Angus Labrador appeared. This was just a few hours after I had seen him hired by John Goo Goo. He looked markedly less sober now. He asked for a beer, and sat down heavily on the ground. He listened for a minute to the conversation, which had turned to the money to be made from “snow crabbing”—Denny had recently worked on a crab boat out of a port in New Brunswick. Labrador interrupted in a belligerent tone.

“This ain’t nothing,” he said. “This is like a shelter! You go back a hundred miles in the woods, I’d like to see you survive.”

The abrupt transition from city to country seemed to have addled Labrador. Nobody had been talking about wilderness survival. A silence fell over the group.

“Give me something white,” Labrador demanded. “I’ll turn it green.”

People looked around desultorily. Denny picked up half a business card from the ground. It was mine. Someone had torn it in half. Denny looked at me apologetically. His look said: that shouldn’t have happened. He handed the half-card to Labrador. The back, at least, was white. Labrador began rubbing the card with a leaf. Robinson rolled his eyes at me. Labrador held up the card.

“What color is that?” he asked defiantly.

“White,” Robinson said.

Labrador rubbed harder, longer, then held up the card again. What color?

Robinson peered at the card and sighed. “Uh, light green,” he said.

Tecumseh and his girlfriend giggled, and rolled back into the tall grass.

Labrador staggered off to pee behind a tree.

“Homeboy’s buzzing, eh?” Denny said.

Robinson: “There’s a lot of guys like that in Boston. Standing on every corner.”

When Labrador returned, Denny addressed him in Mi’kmaq. The language is soft and sibilant. Labrador strained forward, watching Denny’s lips closely, but did not reply. It became clear that he did not understand the language.

“I’m homeless in Boston,” Labrador announced. His belligerence was gone, replaced by plaintiveness. “Yesterday I was in a shelter.”

“Why don’t you go home?” Denny asked.

“My problem is alcohol.”

“There’s bootleggers on the rez,” Robinson said, unhelpfully.

“I can’t control it.”

“There’s programs,” Denny said. “Even here. This guy’s sister’s husband—tomorrow, when you’re sober, I’ll introduce you. It’s the start of a new beginning. Don’t think anymore about Boston. He’s gonna set you up in Canada. Some nice place, like Red Bank.”

Labrador seemed to consider this idea, but then said, “You know why I drink? Because I got nobody. Because I’m all alone.”

“You’re not alone. You got people. You just need to come home.”

It was odd, to me, these young roughnecks gently counseling a stranger old enough to be their father. But it was obviously odd only to me. Labrador found his feet, distractedly agreeing to meet Denny’s guy’s sister’s husband the following day. He headed down the row of tents, looking for his friend’s.

I asked my companions why they thought Labrador didn’t speak Mi’kmaq.

“There’s a lot of people like that,” Robinson said. “He’s from that generation of reservation kids that got taken off to the residential school and beaten whenever they spoke their own language. It worked. They forgot it.”

I had read about the residential schools movement, which began in Pennsylvania and spread to Canada. Its founder’s motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The movement is now defunct. Some native languages, including Mi’kmaq, have been making a modest comeback recently. In John Goo Goo’s school, much of the instruction, he told me, is in Mi’kmaq. Other languages, like Passamaquoddy, aren’t doing as well—each generation speaks less than the one before it.

Robinson bet Denny two boxes of berries that Labrador would not get up and rake in the morning. Denny took the bet.

Robinson wished that he himself would not be waking up at Goo Goo’s camp in the morning. “My girlfriend’s working in the Wyman’s factory in Deblois,” he told me. Wyman’s is the second-largest wild blueberry grower in America. The company has its own processing plant, as well as many thousands of carefully cleared and leveled acres in the barrens. It relies almost exclusively on mechanical harvesters. But some Mi’kmaqs, including Robinson’s girlfriend and her family—who come to Maine, he said, in their own well-appointed RV—still work in the processing plant. “I slept there last night. Man, queen-sized bed, duvet, air-conditioning. Here I’m going to be sleeping on the ground, hanging on to my sixty.” He meant his blueberry rake. He demonstrated a pathetic, rake-hugging, uncomfortable sleeper.

Denny laughed.

“Hey!” Robinson had noticed me dumping bits of meat fat in the weeds. “Don’t leave meat scraps out. This is Maine. They got bears.”

So what about that swimming hole?

The sun was sinking, but our inertia was rising. The power of Smirnoff Ice. And the swimming hole was several miles away. Of course, the boys had noticed that I had a car.

“You know, we’re here for the money and all,” Robinson said. “But this is also one of the strongest cultural things we do. Raking is.”

“It’s like a two-week powwow,” Denny agreed.

Finally, we renounced inertia, struggled out of our beach chairs, roused Tecumseh and his girl, piled into my car, and headed down America’s most glorious ghetto road to a kettle pond at the edge of the barrens.

Alex Nicholas is the police chief at Indian Township, the larger of the two Passamaquoddy reservations. On his summer vacation, he works as a harvest supervisor for Northeastern. His camp is called Tribes, and most of the Passamaquoddy rakers stay there. He runs a tight ship. “I don’t allow people to drink in public over here,” he told me. “I don’t allow them to be disorderly. One warning, then you’re gone. My first year out here as supervisor, 1999, there was so much conflict—all because of substance abuse. But we’ve made this camp more peaceful, more structured, and people like that. I have a curfew for the youth: anyone under seventeen must be in their camp by 9 p.m.”

Nicholas, who is in his early forties, sounds hard-nosed with his camp rules, but his management style is soft-centered. “Understanding who’s who, what their health problems are, how they work, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. We were talking in his RV at Tribes. Nicholas looks like he belongs in a recruiting brochure for somebody’s army—solid physique, enviable posture, short hair, direct but friendly gaze. “I’ve got nieces and nephews out here,” he went on. “There are different clans—the Peter Pauls, the Danas, the Francises. But you need to know the individuals. If somebody says they’ve got a bad row to rake, I’ll just agree with them. I try not to embarrass them. A lot of people out here raking are dropouts, have experienced long-term unemployment, come from abusive environments. Why do they come and do such hard work? You hear people talk about paying their vehicle insurance, their electric bill, school clothes, but it’s also just people knowing they’re needed. The gratification of payday. The dignity, and knowing they’re respected. A lot of soul-searching goes on out here.”

Nicholas’s two-way radio squawked. It was Darrell Newell. Nicholas picked it up, listened, looked out his window. It was nighttime, and he scanned the barrens for headlights. “No, not yet,” he said into the radio. “Truck full of rakes, and he says he’s vacationing? Okay. I’ll watch.” Nicholas set down the radio. “It’s a guy we know. He’s not vacationing. He’s unemployed. His girlfriend is raking for me here.”

Midnight rakers have been a problem since the 1990s, when the price of wild blueberries surged. “The black market in berries is big,” Nicholas said. “There’s more money into it. He could come out here, rake forty boxes for us, make a hundred dollars, but if he rakes those same berries illegally, sells them by the pound, he’ll make many times that.”

Nicholas picked up a stack of printouts—crew lists. Northeastern recently computerized. Nicholas studied the berry numbers. “If it’s a good crop, everybody wins,” he said. “The people, the company, the tribe. But people come to rake even when it’s a bad crop. That’s how humble they are.”

The soul-searching is real, and it seemed to be general. When I asked Darrell Newell about what he had learned from his predecessor, Francis Nicholas, he said, “We talked all the time for twelve years, but our main conversations weren’t about agriculture or business. They were about religion and spirituality. Francis is a deacon of the Catholic Church. I went to a Catholic mission school on the reservation, and I was an altar boy and everything. But then my dad died when I was ten, and my dad wasn’t a churchgoer, and I saw how they treated him at his funeral—where they put his body in the church, how they buried him. It was disrespectful, and kids see a lot more than people realize. I left the Church right there and then. I still believe in God, but not the way the Catholics do. I’m more of a Native traditionalist. So that’s what Francis and I used to talk about. We didn’t argue. It was more respectful than that. We just exchanged ideas for twelve years. It was great.”

One thing, Newell said, that he had to learn when he first went to work at Northeastern was that local white people were not all happy to have Indians coming in and buying a big blueberry farm. “First couple days, I waved to people we’d pass on the farm roads. They didn’t wave back. Finally, Francis put his hand on my hand. ‘Don’t wave,’ he said. ‘They’re not going to wave back.’ Then one time I saw Francis with the front of his shirt all covered with cake. I said, ‘Francis, you made kind of a mess eating your cake.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t eat cake. Some guy driving the other way saw me and threw his cake at me. And he was a pretty good shot!’ I was young and a lot more aggressive in those days. But I learned how to get along with folks around here. We pretty much flood the area with Mi’kmaqs this time of year, and people have had to get used to that. It’s better now. We been here twenty-five years.”

Ariving across the barrens, you see the mechanical harvesters working on the big farms—Wyman’s, Cherryfield Foods. Some are modest contraptions, mounted on the sides of tractors, with a rotating picking head raking the berries from their vines and depositing them on a conveyor belt that carries them to a rear loading platform where a second operator works, switching out boxes as they fill. Other harvesters are much bigger, more elaborate and task-specific, with air-conditioned cabs and lights that let them operate around the clock when the berries are at peak ripeness. The harvester operators are nearly all independent contractors, Canadians who come down from Nova Scotia with their machines after the harvest there, which occurs slightly earlier than Maine’s. All are non-Natives, as Indians often call whites. The larger harvesters fill huge berry boxes that hold 350 pounds of fruit each. I was told, anonymously, at a processing plant, that the wild blueberries on the bottom of such big boxes tend to be mushy. The fact that mechanical harvesters winnow—remove the leaves and other plant debris that tend to get into a box of hand-raked berries—is a mixed blessing, I was also told, since the leaves act as cushioning while fruit is transported. The factory, in any event, thoroughly winnows and washes the berries before they are frozen. These small comparative advantages of hand-raking don’t, of course, change the fact that the future of commercial wild blueberry growing is mechanized.

Still, you see rakers wanted signs all over Downeast Maine at harvest time. Every little farm and field seems to have wild blueberries and owners who want them harvested. And that work is generally done by hand. Local whites, who used to move en masse to the barrens at harvest time, still have rakes and know how to use them. Washington County is one of the poorest rural corners of a rural state, and for people patching together seasonal livings, raking blueberries can still be a good, if brief and arduous, gig. For Latino migrant farmworkers following the “eastern stream” from Florida to New England, wild blueberries are said to be the single most lucrative crop. But the number of jobs on the barrens—jobs with commercial growers that include free housing—has fallen sharply with mechanization. I visited, at the Machias branch of the University of Maine, a federally funded summer school for the children of migrant farmworkers. The staff told me that their attendance numbers had been falling for at least a decade. Latino kids had become scarce. Indeed, most of the hundred-plus children they saw each day were Mi’kmaqs from the labor camps of the Northeastern Blueberry Company, where school buses made the rounds at dawn. There were still Latino migrants working the local harvest, but most were single men, or men who had not brought their families along.

“I been raking fifty years,” Joe Meuse said, straightening up from his work. Meuse was slim, dark-skinned, fifty-eight, with a jet-black ponytail halfway down his back. He grinned. “Guess it keeps you young. On a good day, I can still do a hundred boxes.” Meuse comes from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. He’s a Mi’kmaq but he stays in Tribes camp. “I like the strict way Alex runs it. I used to party when I was young, but I’ve gone twenty-five years now without drinking.” He looked across the misty field, and I followed his gaze. It was not long after sunrise. Rakers in baseball caps and hockey shirts and blue jeans and bandannas were bent to their work.

“This is a great farm,” Meuse said. “I do drywall. And I did just drywall for four, five years without blueberryin’, but then I realized, No. Raking is a traditional thing, not just a money thing. So I came back to it.” Meuse said he worked, drywalling for different contractors, in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, New Hampshire.

I asked how he crossed the border.

“I use my Status Indian card,” he said. “But now they’re trying to say we need to get passports. That won’t happen.”

Why not?

“Because we have that right, comin’ and goin’. We don’t recognize that border. So I look at it as history repeating itself, if we go get that passsport. They can control some of it, but they can’t control all of it. If they keep going like this, I’d be same as you. I wouldn’t consider myself a Mi’kmaq. I’d be nobody.”

Meuse expressed these deep, seditious, vaguely belittling ideas in a soft voice with an entirely charming smile. He wore tinted glasses with one lens cracked, blue jeans, and a blue headband. ”My Status card is my passport,” he went on. “That’s just like taking who you are away, trying to put you as somebody else.” He pursed his lips. “What they’re scared of is our treaty rights—the Jay Treaty over here, and Watertown; 1752 in Canada. But they can’t go against those because we signed them, for peace. Broken treaties—that’s why I say history’s repeating itself.”

He pointed across the barrens at a labor camp in the distance. “These camps are like villages,” he said. “It’s like the old days. They used to use our own people, put ‘em in uniforms, get ‘em to help them find our villages, take the strong men away, put everybody else inside the forts, then make them sign treaties, and take our land. Then they take the scouts or trackers and put them in prison for the rest of their lives.” Meuse studied me, wondering, I guessed, whether I was following his train of thought. “It’s the same today,” he went on. “They put some of our people in uniforms—police, R.C.M.P., fish and game wardens, at the border—to watch over us and say, ‘This is a good one, this is a bad one.’”

What I was wondering was whether Meuse knew that Alex Nicholas, whose strictness he appreciated, was a cop.

“I’m a Sun Dancer,” he said. “I go to South Dakota, Saskatchewan. And there’s times when I stop, and start thinkin’ about our people, and how they are, and what’s being done to them. We been losing traditional things, like sweat lodges. They brought the Roman Catholic Church in, and they seen we weren’t coming to church, so they said we had to put the sweats away. But that’s how we pray. People got brainwashed to pray their way instead. But those people in South Dakota, the Sioux, they were strong. They used to sneak away at night, go to sweat lodges. They kept up the Sun Dance.”

Hearing Meuse talk about the South Dakota Sioux reminded me that a Mi’kmaq woman, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, who was, like Meuse, from Shubenecadie, had been at Pine Ridge during the long battle there between the American Indian Movement and the F.B.I. Aquash was a leading militant, and in 1976 she was murdered, apparently by some of her comrades. As a girl, she had come to Maine to rake blueberries. She had been just a couple of years older than Meuse.

“Some of our young people are getting back into it now,” Meuse went on, merrily. “Dancin’, sweatin.’ They have a Sun Dance in Big Cove every year now.”

Meuse went back to raking. He was using a small, one-handled rake and had a lovely, easy motion. I sat on the ground writing in a notebook. After a few minutes, Meuse came past, scooping berries effortlessly. He was raking a “row” of vines marked by a strand of thin white twine, and he hardly tore a leaf. “You’re sittin’ over here alone thinking,” he said to me. “I do the same thing.”

And did he write things down?

“No. Then they could take it away from me. Turn it into something to buy and sell. My thoughts are not for sale.”

“Mine are.”

Meuse laughed. “It’s like my medicine,” he said. “I make traditional medicines, and people come to me, but I never write down what goes in my medicines. They work, and you gotta pass on the knowledge, but orally. That’s the only way.”

The Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy and other Wabanki tribes were attuned to the health benefits of wild blueberries long before antioxidants came into vogue. They ate them in season, sun-dried them in quantity, used them in soups and stews and as a meat tenderizer, and they chewed them through the lean times in winter. The story even went that Glooskap, the Great Spirit, had sent wild blueberries as a safeguard against starvation. The berries were used in dyes, and blueberry flatcakes figure in Mi’kmaq legends. Blueberry tea is still used today to treat colds, coughs, sore throats, diarrhea, and morning sickness. Boiling blueberry roots and leaves produces a traditional tonic for rheumatism. As with some other herbal remedies, old folk beliefs about the capacity of wild blueberries to improve vision or help fight diabetes have lately received a certain amount of independent scientific confirmation. Not that Joe Meuse is about to change his mind and patent, or even write down, any of his recipes.

Mid-morning, Monday, I came across Angus Labrador striding purposefully through the barrens, heading away from John Goo Goo’s camp. It was raining lightly, and he had his black knapsack over his shoulder. He didn’t look at me when I stopped my car alongside him. I asked where he was going.

“I got nothing here,” he said sharply. “No rake, no food, no money, no place to sleep.”

I told him that Goo Goo would give him a rake and food, even a tent, against his first paycheck. (Goo Goo had told me that was his policy.) I offered him a lift back to the camp.

“No, thanks,” he said, and resumed walking. There was rain dripping off the end of his nose.

I drove slowly alongside him, and asked again where he was going.


I offered to give him a lift down to the highway, which was at least ten miles away.

“No, thanks,” Labrador said. He did not stop walking. His jaw was set, his face a mask of despair. When I persisted with my wheedling, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and snapped, “I walked thirty-six days from Georgia to New York on a railroad track.”

I gave up. I turned and drove deeper into the barrens, and found Goo Goo’s crew raking a patch near Northeastern Blueberry’s cranberry bogs. I told Noel Denny who I had seen on the road. He wiped the sweat off his face, nodding his head. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Don’t tell Arch. He’ll want his two boxes.”

I didn’t tell Robinson, who was grimly raking. He was hungover, he said. He pointed at a stack of ten or twelve boxes already full, stacked at the end of his row. “Those are my new shoes,” he said. He looked at the unraked row ahead, which was topped with a haze of powder blue. “I see my new shirt and jacket up there.”

I asked him for his phone number, which he gave me. “But don’t ask for Matthew Robinson,” he said. “That’s just my government name. Some white guy they don’t know calls, you say Bill Finnegan, they’ll say bill collector.”

He went back to his raking.

Northeastern Blueberry’s commitment to employing Native rakers has been tested lately. Its Centerville camp, which sits in a different part of the barrens, off a different road, from the company’s four other camps, was being run by a couple, Tania Smith and Andrew Syliboy. She’s Passamaquoddy, he’s Mi’kmaq. Then, in 2006, the couple broke up, and Smith took up with a woman. Syliboy left Northeastern, and Smith carried on, but Centerville’s core crew of Mi’kmaq rakers, who came from Big Cove, New Brunswick, deserted her. Desperate for labor as the harvest approached, she put out the word and managed to find Latino migrants, mostly single Mexican and Honduran men, willing to come and rake. The men learned quickly, and worked hard and fast, and Centerville managed to get its berries picked. A handful of Mi’kmaq families did come to Centerville in 2007, but they mostly stayed in big, comfortable-looking RVs, not in the plywood huts, and they did not work as hard as the Latinos.

I was surprised to hear some rakers at other camps talk about how Northeastern would never hire Mexican migrants because of the farm’s commitment to Native employment. They obviously didn’t know about the changes at Centerville. The harvest supervisors, however, knew. Vincent Simon asked Darrell Newell if he too could hire some Mexicans. “I told him it hadn’t got to that point yet,” Newell told me. I sat with Simon at his camp, looking over his crew list. He had 121 people registered, but fewer than a hundred working. “People register, but then things come up,” he said. “Some had to go back to Big Cove for a wedding. Another guy had an aunt’s house broken into. I have five Goo Goos here, but two were big ladies, not really ready to rake. I think they just came to experience Maine.”

Simon, who had been a camp boss at Northeastern for fifteen years, might have been at a recruiting disadvantage because he no longer lived in Big Cove but in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he was the director of a solvent abuse treatment center. Solvent abuse—gasoline sniffing, mostly—is a big prolem, he said, on reservations. “It’s not common in urban areas,” he said. “It can also be glue or other household products. It’s addictive, and it’s terrible for your health. There’s lots of recidivism. Sniffing is a cheap high, not like alcohol or real drugs. And it seems to be spreading. We’re sending a counselor to make a presentation in Thailand. You can OD and die from solvent abuse. We had a death in Big Cove.”

Talking to Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy rakers on the barrens, it was easy for an outsider to forget the troubled places where they really live. But then the cold shadow of premature death and self-destruction would abruptly appear. I was sitting on the steps of a hut in John Goo Goo’s camp, for example, talking to Jeffrey Knockwood, who is fourteen and lives in Eskasoni, Cape Breton. Fourteen is now the minimum age for legal raking, so Jeffrey was working alongside his mother, Irene, and his grandmother, Mary Knockwood, who is seventy-five. I had come to talk to Mary, but she was tired, so instead Jeffrey and I sat on the steps and he told me about all the great Mi’kmaq hockey players, starting with his big brother, who was the best goalie in Nova Scotia. He also had a third or fourth cousin, he said, Chad Denny, who was in the National Hockey League. Denny was only the second Mi’kmaq to make it to the NHL. Then, out of the blue, Jeffrey said, “My first cousin, Ikey, killed himself July 15th.” That was only a month earlier. “He hanged himself in the bathroom. He was nineteen. It was drinking and steroids. He had two kids, but one was born after he died. Ikey was the strongest guy in Eskasoni. That’s about him.” He pointed to the stoop where I was sitting. Somebody had scrawled in chalk a tribute to Ikey, including a gravestone. I jumped up. “That’s okay,” Jeffrey said. “We all have to walk on it to go in and out.”

There was a potluck dinner in the cookhouse at Simon’s camp. Big bowls of pasta, beef stew, and coleslaw, trays full of bannock and green beans, lined a long table, with hungry rakers filling their paper plates. After the meal, a couple of dozen people stuck around for Bingo. The caller was a middle-aged man with carefully coiffed, light brown hair. His banter in Mi’kmaq was low-key, but evidently funny—at least it kept the crowd of players, who were mainly older people, tittering even as they concentrated on their Bingo. The only English the caller spoke was when he loudly, precisely, called the tiles, which he pulled from a plastic bowl: “B Eight.” Everyone was using enormous purple Magic Markers to score their sheets. Small piles of cash lay in front of the players. I was sitting beside Margaret Ann Millier, Jody Millier’s mother, watching her play. Jody, who was playing poker in a nearby hut, came in to speak to his mother. Through the doorway, I could see the sun going down across the barrens. Just outside, children were joyfully screaming. They had piled some mattresses into a homemade trampoline and were leaping off a pickup onto the pile. Jody elbowed me. “The Machine,” he whispered, and directed my gaze to a white guy eating alone in the corner of the cookhouse. It was Jesse Schaefer, the champion raker and hermit. He looked about fifty. He was thin but clearly super-fit, like a marathoner. He ate fast and somewhat furtively. “He keeps moving closer,” Jody whispered. “One of these days, he’s going to join the family.”

After the 2007 harvest, Darrell Newell abruptly left his job as manager at Northeastern. “Tribal politics” drove him out, he said, “interfering with day-to-day business activities.” He declined to be more specific. He continues to work for Northeastern as a consultant. He was replaced by J.D. Newell, a truck driver on the farm. J.D. is not related to Darrell, but is the oldest son of Wayne Newell. Wayne is the president of Northeastern Blueberry Company and a longtime member of the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council. With me, Darrell was philosophical about the appearance of nepotism. “It’s inevitable,” he said. “We’re a small group of people.” 


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