By Nellie Blagden
January 31, 1977 12:00 PM

It’s the most extraordinary land claim ever,” says Thomas N. Tureen, a tireless young antipoverty lawyer. Indeed. If Tom Tureen should prove his clients’ case in the federal courts, two-thirds of the entire state of Maine—some 12 million acres, worth $25 billion—may eventually be given back to the Indians.

Maine officials, of course, are aghast that the tribes are pressing their ancestral claims to the land. “They’re talking about looking up treaties that go back to Colonial times,” complains state Attorney General Joseph E. Brennan. “You can’t roll back 200 years of history.” Authorities elsewhere are beginning to wonder. Last month in Massachusetts voters in the resort town of Gay Head took the first steps toward returning 243 disputed acres to the Wampanoag tribe. Similar lawsuits have been filed elsewhere in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island, Connecticut and upstate New York. The principal attorney in all but one case: 33-year-old Tom Tureen.

It is Maine, however, that has put Tureen on the brink of the most important breakthrough in Indian land-claim history. His case is based on an obscure 18th-century U.S. law barring the sales of Indian land without federal approval—which was apparently never obtained as the property was bargained away over the years. Two weeks ago Tureen scored a preliminary victory. The Interior Department decided his argument had enough merit to recommend Justice Department action on the Indians’ behalf.

Despite the enthusiasm with which he presses his case, Tureen grew up almost wholly ignorant of the Indians’ plight in this country. The son of a well-to-do St. Louis, Mo. businessman, Tom remembers his early years as a time of personal rebellion. “I spent most of fourth grade in the hall as punishment,” he recalls. Despite such mischief, he was eventually admitted to Princeton, where he majored in English literature and poetry.

His life changed abruptly one summer when he took a vacation job in South Dakota at a boarding school for Sioux children. There, Tureen says, he found the Indians to be powerless wards of the federal government. “Fascinated and horrified,” he became a passionate advocate for the Indians.

After enrolling at George Washington University Law School, Tureen married Susan Albright, a student at Sarah Lawrence College, in 1968. “She kind of got dragged along—our honeymoon was a field trip to most of the Indian reservations in the country,” Tom says. “Susan almost left me right at the start.”

“Not so, I’ve enjoyed it all,” Susan demurs. When Tom took up the cause of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes of Maine, the Tureens moved to the town of Calais (pronounced “callous”) in 1969. There Tom, Susan and 7-month-old daughter Phoebe have set up housekeeping in a century-old farmhouse on 55 acres.

Tureen has adapted easily to his adopted surroundings. Backwoods outfits from L. L. Bean have pushed his Brooks Brothers suits to the back of the closet. He enjoys cross-country skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer but, he says, “mostly I work.” As one of 18 attorneys employed by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), a private legal-aid organization based in Boulder, Colo., Tom has 14 Eastern tribes as clients. To fly from one legal outpost to the next, he has acquired a private pilot’s license and his own single-engine Cessna.

If the Maine Indians win their case, Tom is one man who will not get rich in the bargain. Win or lose, NARF pays him a flat $22,000-a-year salary. Plotting what could become the most celebrated Indian victory since the Little Big Horn seems reward enough. “If no one will negotiate with us,” Tureen warns, “the Indians will probably show mercy and give people back their houses when this is all over. They probably will, but it will be a gift if they do.”