CONTRIBUTORS

Penobscot Nation suing Maine to fight for namesake river

Posted Aug. 19, 2014, at 2:55 p.m.
George Danby | BDN

The Penobscot Nation is an Indian tribe that has occupied and cared for the Penobscot River since time immemorial. Our principal community and the seat of our government, Panawanskek, is situated in the river about 10 miles north of Bangor and is known also as Indian Island. The name of our tribe, Pa’nawampske’wiak, translated as “people of where the river broadens out,” references the rich fishing grounds near Indian Island that sustained us for thousands of years.

Our creation stories illustrate the special relationship we have always shared with the river. It is the foundation of our clan system.

For decades, dams and water pollution have threatened the fish, eel, muskrat, duck, turtle and other river-borne food sources upon which Penobscot people historically relied. Valuable medicinal plants, such as flagroot, which grows on the bottom of the river, are similarly vulnerable.

But there is good news. The Penobscot Nation has joined forces with federal agencies, the state of Maine and nonprofit organizations to restore the health of the river and the resources that sustain Penobscot people. After more than 200 years of suffering from harms that beset the majority of Indian tribes in this country — poverty, discrimination and the loss of language and traditions that define our unique culture — Penobscots are again able to stand up for themselves and the river that shares their name.

Inflammatory accusations of “secret pacts,” detailed by Matt Manahan in his Aug. 6 OpEd in the Bangor Daily News, serve only to undermine the peaceful coexistence between the tribe and the residents of Maine and awaken the “us versus them” mentality long discarded by the majority of Mainers who are proud to know the Penobscot Nation once again has a voice on the river.

It’s worth looking at history before blindly accepting attempts to conjure old fears of “Indian motives,” with respect to the current court case.

In 1972, the United States filed United States v. Maine to compensate the tribe for the loss of lands and natural resources taken by the state under illegal treaties. “By virtue of [these] wrongful actions,” the complaint said, Maine “has interfered with the hunting, fishing, and trapping rights of the [Penobscot] Nation, which rights are of great religious significance to the Nation causing great spiritual and economic damage to the Nation and its members.”

In 1980, Congress settled these claims and in so doing made a solemn promise to the Penobscot Nation that its “subsistence hunting and fishing rights” were secure. “Prior to the settlement,” Congress said, “Maine claimed the right to alter or terminate these rights at any time.” Henceforth, the Penobscot Nation would have “the permanent right to control” those activities. “The power of the State of Maine to alter such rights without the consent of the [Tribe] is ended.”

Will the results be catastrophic if this promise is vindicated? Of course not.

In fact, in the first 20 years after the land claims settlement, there was a broad consensus among the parties — the United States, Maine and the Penobscot Nation — that the tribe’s sustenance fishing right exists in the Penobscot River. It was only when the tribe, supported by federal agencies such as the EPA, asserted its right to a healthy river to maintain its sustenance fishery that it received a heavy-handed response from some who claim the tribe cannot be trusted.

Several corporations with waste discharge pipes that empty into the Penobscot River have been persuaded that their and the tribe’s interests in the river are mutually exclusive. And their lawyers advocate a very radical position, one that would sever the tribe from the river forever. They claim the tribe has no sustenance fishing right in the river, that its reservation is strictly confined to islands, where there are no fish.

It’s unfortunate that, in recent years, these lawyers have apparently persuaded the Maine attorney general’s office to abandon its own views about the Penobscot Nation’s reservation fishery in the river.

On Aug. 9, 2012, Maine Attorney General William Schneider wrote to Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis to announce a newly minted opinion that the Penobscot Nation’s reservation does not include the river. This view, if accepted, would result in the termination of the tribe’s sustenance fishing right, contrary to the promise made by Congress to the Penobscot Nation when it settled United States v. Maine.

Why wouldn’t the Penobscot people go back to court to have that promise affirmed? Why wouldn’t the federal government, which brought the original lawsuit and supported the original settlement, support the Penobscot Nation in its effort?

We are in court today to ensure that the promises made to the Penobscot Nation by Congress are upheld. These promises recognize our ancient ties to the river and confirm our sustenance fishing right.

Mark Chavaree is a member of the Penobscot Nation and serves as the tribe’s General Counsel. He grew up on Indian Island and resides there with his family.

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