BANGOR, Maine — Approximately 30 canoes and small watercraft — one rowing in from Hampden — plied the waters of the Penobscot River in Bangor on Saturday in a protest to show support for the Penobscot Nation in its fight against the state of Maine to keep a portion of the river as part of its reservation.
Organized by the social and environmental advocacy group SEEDs For Justice, the event brought more than 60 paddlers, including members of the Penobscot Nation, and more than 70 others who stood on the shore handing out leaflets and holding signs.
“Personally, I just object wildly to the government continually taking away the rights of the Indians,” said Robin Lovrien who came from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth to support the Penobscot people.
“Haven’t we learned anything?” she said. “They were robbed of their lands and rights.”
Participants hung banners from the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge that read “Honor Treaties” and “Respect Penobscot Territory.”
According to organizer Sara Mosoco, the event was meant to show support for the Penobscot people in their ongoing litigation with the state and attract attention to the issue.
“They’re trying to maintain sustenance fishing and hunting rights on the Penobscot River, which is part of their sovereign territory,” she said.
The flotilla comes as the Penobscot Nation continues its legal battle against the state and stems from a 1972 lawsuit filed by the U.S. government against the state to compensate the tribe for lost lands and natural resources.
The U.S. Congress settled the claim with the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act that granted the Penobscot people hunting and fishing rights for all sections of the Penobscot River from Milford Dam to Millinocket without a license so long as it was for subsistence.
But in 1988, then Attorney General James Tierney issued an opinion on the act stating that “the river itself is not part of the Penobscot Nation’s reservations, and therefore is not subject to (the tribe’s) regulatory authority or proprietary control.”
The dispute is set against the backdrop of the tribe’s efforts to clean up the river by forcing towns with wastewater discharge permits to take steps to increase water quality along the waterway.
Mosoco said Saturday that is key to the tribes ability to fish the river for sustenance since it is so polluted that the average adult cannot safely eat more than two fish from it per year.
In 2012, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking an injunction to keep Maine game wardens from policing the river and preventing tribal members from engaging in sustenance fishing.
The federal government has sided with the tribe with a U.S. District Court judge ruling last year that the federal government could join the Penobscot Nation against the state over fishing and hunting rights.
In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the state it must take steps to increase water quality standards in tribal sections of the river in order to protect the Penobscot people’s ancestral hunting and fishing rights.
That could result in towns and others with discharge permits spending millions on upgrades to their discharge systems within the next five years.
To date, 18 municipalities and others with discharge permits have filed as intervenors in the suit to support the state’s case. However, in March, Orono leaders decided to remove themselves from the suit at the behest of tribe members and others.
The state has 90 days to address the EPA’s position on increasing water quality standards to protect human health along the river, stretching about 70 miles from the Milford Dam to Millinocket.
If the state does not respond, EPA officials said they “will propose and promulgate appropriate human health criteria for water in Indian land in Maine.”
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.