December 16, 2018
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Film shines light on Penobscots’ relationship with river, pending lawsuit

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Jan Paul spends a lot of early mornings on the Penobscot River testing the water to determine how much oxygen is in it at different depths.

The results of her tests are shared with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The water resource technician with the Penobscot Nation Department of Natural Resources is featured in a 35-minute film about the tribe’s traditional relationship with the river and the threat a lawsuit pending in federal court poses to it. Meredith DeFrancesco, who worked on the film, said it is not yet available online but should be soon. It will be used to educate people about the tribe’s history and its relationship with the river.

A rough cut of the film, “The Penobscot: Ancestral River, Contested Territory,” was shown Saturday afternoon at an educational event titled Justice for the River II: Connecting the Dots and Celebrating Alliances, held at the Sockalexis Arena. About 100 tribal and nontribal members attended.

In the film, produced by Sunlight Media Collective, Paul said she hoped that in the future, the Penobscot River would not need to be monitored so closely because the towns and businesses along the river would take steps to reverse what has been decades of pollution.

“I want to work myself right out of a job,” she said.

If the tribe loses the lawsuit, Paul’s job might be turned over to a state employee.

Three years ago in August, the tribe sued the Maine attorney general and the heads of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maine Warden Service over who has authority over the water of the Penobscot River surrounding the reservation. The case appears to be headed for trial late this year or early next year.

The state maintained in its motion for summary judgment filed in April that the 1980 Indian Claims Settlement Act defined the reservation islands within the Penobscot River from Indian Island northward to the confluence of the east and west branches and does not include the natural resources or bed of the river.

“The State has the authority to regulate activities occurring on the Penobscot River including, but not limited to, navigation, sampling, fishing, hunting, trapping and salvage logging,” the motion said.

The tribe’s reply to the motion is due Monday in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

Attorneys for the Penobscot maintained in their complaint that a letter written in 1988 by then-Attorney General James Tierney said that tribes were authorized to take fish within the boundaries of their respective reservations so long as the fish are used for their individual sustenance.

The lawsuit, along with other disputes with Gov. Paul LePage, caused the tribal representatives from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes to withdraw last month from the Legislature. In announcing the decision, tribal leaders cited growing concerns about the state government’s apparent lack of respect for tribal sovereignty, according to a previously published report.

Originally, 18 municipalities, companies and sewer districts were granted intervenor status in the lawsuit to support the state’s position. In April, Orono withdrew from it after community members opposed being involved.

Scenes in the film show tribal and residents of Bucksport urging town leaders to also withdraw. The matter still is pending before their council.

Saturday’s event was important because it brought together people who care about the future of the Penobscot watershed and all the people who live along it and share it, John Banks, director of the Penobscot Nation Department of Natural Resources said as the event was ending on Indian Island and moving to an Alton dance hall.

“A lot of people are really starting to understand the natural resources, recreational and fisheries value of a clean river,” he said. “People are really coming together and working together to secure a better future for all of our grandchildren.”

The river is not just a source of food for tribal members and others, Banks said in the film.

“There’s a spiritual aspect to this as well,” he said. “It’s what defines us in relationship to the land.”


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