Penobscot Indian Nation members performed before the Veazie Dam removal. The tribe ties the river to their history. There are aprox. 2,300 tribal members.
By Ramona du Houx
"Our family names, our language, our creation stories, all aspects of who we are as a people come from our relationship to the river. We could not stand by and let the state sever those ties,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis over the actions the tribe has taken to reclaim their water rights.
On December 16, 2015 a federal judge ruled that the Penobscot Nation reservation includes the islands on the main stem of the Penobscot River but not the water itself.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge George Singal, said that members of the tribe may take fish from the entirety of that section of the river for sustenance.
“The court’s ruling that the tribe’s reservation boundaries for sustenance fishing are ‘in the entire main stem of the river’ is a significant victory,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. “It also appears that those boundaries apply to our hunting and trapping rights and authorities.”
Some in the community are concerned that the reservation is confined to island surfaces. Hence the Penobscot nation might appeal the decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston within the next 60 days.
The rulings came more than three years after the tribe filed a lawsuit against the state as a result of former Attorney General William Schneider sending a letter dated Aug. 8, 2012, to the tribal warden service saying that the state—not the tribe—has the authority to charge people with violating fishing regulations and water safety rules.
The letter came after a season of elvers fishing was bringing in a bounty and more fishermen wanted to fish in Penobscot territory. Gov. Paul LePage put limits on how many fishermen and how much they could fish. The tribe said he didn’t have a right to do that in their lands so AG. Schneider went to work. At that time the EPA also said Maine was not in complience with water quality.
In recent years, market demand for elvers has increased dramatically. Elvers are highly valued in the far east (Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea) where they are cultured and reared to adult size for the food fish market. Due to recent intense market demand, elvers have now become the most valuable marine resource in terms of price per pound which varies from $25 to $350.
The tribe argued that its reservation includes the water in the river because of the tribe’s sustenance fishing rights. There have been many treaties with the Penobscot over hundreds of years, all of which grant the tribe the river water rights as part of their “lands.”
A year later, most municipalities along the river were granted intervener status in the case to support the state’s contention that the reservation included the islands but not the water. Many of the municipalities that signed on were pressured by corporate businesses along the river, like paper companies. The irony is Verso, Redshield and the Bucksport mill, all “interveners” have all closed since then. The corporations said a ruling in the tribe’s favor would give the Indians control over water quality on the river. Thus, they might impose stricter rules on discharges into the river.
In 2014 the state sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over water quality in tribal waters. Because the EPA referred to tribal waters as the standard the state has been put in a bad postion. The battle continues in court. The state claims the EPA created a double standard for water quality — one for tribal waters and another for the rest of the state.
The State Representative for the Penobscot nation left the legislature last spring as tensions between the state and his people became too strained. Gov. LePage continues to his attempts to undermine the Indians sovereign rights, on the behalf of the people of Maine. The majority of state citizens reject LePage’s claims.