Henry Bear: A challenging life, a challenge for Congress

Henry Bear: A challenging life, a challenge for Congress

 

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.

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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.

 

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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