For thousands of years, the Penobscot River provided the Penobscot Nation with food, fiber, medicinal plants and a means of transportation that supported an extensive trading network.
The identity of the Penobscot people is so intertwined with the river that it is impossible to separate the two, say members of the tribe.
“It is our lifeblood. We are the river,” said John Banks, Director of the Penobscot Nation’s Natural Resource Department.
That strong sense of connection has driven the Penobscot Nation’s advocacy for cleaner water and the removal of dams along the Penobscot, an advocacy that has played a central role in improving water quality.
The Penobscot Nation’s water quality labs on Indian Island have helped track down pollution sources that have caused algae blooms and traced pollution caused by industrial sources, said Banks.
In court, the Penobscot Nation pushed for higher federal water quality standards by arguing that while members of the tribe were guaranteed the right to sustenance fishing on the Penobscot River, the level of toxins in river fish was too high to allow members of the tribe to safely take advantage of that right.
As part of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, the Penobscot Nation also played a central role in the removal of dams along the river and the restoration of several species of anadromous fish to their historic habitat.
The removal of the dams and the improvement of water quality signal a reversal of a trend that lasted for hundreds of years, in which the Penobscot was treated as an industrial resource, a means to provide power for sawmills and to carry effluent downstream while ignoring the damage done to the environment.
“People turned their back to the river as a result of the industrial revolution,” said Banks. “The river was treated as a sewer for many years.”
Toxins like dioxin and mercury made fish dangerous to eat and threatened the Penobscot Nation’s traditional use of the river. Dams built on the Penobscot or its tributaries prevented the run of anadromous fish like shad, alewives and salmon.
Today, as a resurgent alewife and shad population signal a return to health for the river and many of the species that depend on it, Banks said the river’s renaissance is creating new economic opportunities for everyone, including opportunities for tourism created by the restored fisheries as well as greater use of cleaner waterways stretching all the way to the newly created Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument for tourism.
Banks is proud of the role that the Penobscot Nation played in advocating for a healthier river and he is optimistic about its future.
One reason for that optimism is that modern science is coming increasingly closer to traditional native beliefs that everything in nature is interconnected, including humans.
“The big thing was just to understand that everything is interconnected in the natural world and we are part of that, we are not separate from it,” said Banks.