By Ramona du Houx

On October 30, 2020, in the Ancestral territory of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis and the Penobscot people received 735 acres in what is currently known as Williamsburg Township. The land is to the West of the Pleasant River and the town of Brownsville, in-between two parcels of property already in Penobscot stewardship. It is part of a river ecosystem that is a critical Atlantic Salmon habitat that connects the Penobscot River to Katahdin.

“The Penobscot Nation is extremely grateful to the Elliotsville Foundation for this generous restoration of land stewardship to our Tribe. We take our land stewardship responsibilities very seriously and appreciate the opportunity to once again have this parcel within our present-day landholdings. Through this gesture, Elliotsville Foundation has shown its commitment to strengthen and honor their relationship with the Wabanaki Tribes and recognize our long-standing cultural connection with the land and water,” Chief Francis of the Penobscot Nation said.

Chief Francis of the Penobscot Nation with Lucas St. Clair representing the Elliotsville Foundation during the sign over of the land. Courtesy photo

This gift will create a contiguous block of over 5,000 acres. John Banks is the Natural Resources Director for the Penobscot Nation said the land was Sacred to many in his tribe.

“It’s home to native brook trout, spawning salmon, white-tailed deer, and moose. It provides sustenance through the seasons for many tribal families . . . Consolidation of our Indigenous territory is an ongoing priority for the Tribe, and this return of land moves us forward in a positive direction. I am incredibly grateful for this gift of land to my Tribe,” Banks said.

This significant return of land stewardship to the Penobscot Nation celebrates their history and cultural resilience and serves to inspire similar land stewardship returns. It comes at a time of historic reckoning across Maine, America and the world as many people are waking up to systemic racism and environmental injustices.

This parcel of land reconnects what rightfully has always been in stewardship of the Penobscot, even though the Elliotsville Foundation held the deed. Ownership of land is a Western concept that colonists assumed everyone believed and if they didn’t they were considered fools. The Native American stewardship of the land meant taking care of it meant you were taking care of your community. The land was an intragyral part of one’s being. In many ways the land is the freedom America represents, the freedom Native peoples were aware of long before whites arrived. A freedom that cannot be owned, but must be looked after for future generations.

“I love Maine and the land. As I learned about Maine’s history of land ownership and the violence that was inflected on the Wabanaki People I thought that it was important to use my platform to tell a different narrative. I learned the Wabanaki believe that they belong to the land and the western perspective is that land belongs to individuals and this is at the root of the misunderstanding of the way we treat land in Maine and around the country,” said Lucas St. Clair representing the Elliotsville Foundation.

“I want to hold up the fact that we as colonizers have exploited the unceded lands of the Wabanaki People for our own prosperity and in our greed have left Indigenous people without the basic rights that we assume to be ours without question. While this is not the start or the end of a long journey of reparation, it is what I can do now and what I hope to do more of while encouraging others to join us.”

The Quimby Family, Elliotsville Foundation, 50 land trusts and other land-holding groups have joined together in First Light, an effort to learn the history of Wabanaki land dispossession and to work together to expand Wabanaki presence in, and relationship with, their Ancestral territory. Ninety percent of Maine’s land-base is privately owned and 23 percent is stewarded by conservation organizations, which creates an opportunity for collaboration to achieve these goals.

“First Light exists as a bridge between conservationists and Wabanaki people to reconcile this history by expanding Wabanaki presence and relationship with their territory that we now share together. This is good for all of Maine,” Peter Forbes, a representative of First Light said. “This is just the beginning of long work at making amends in real ways. In addition to this important return of land, member organizations of First Light have granted harvesting permits over tens of thousands of acres affirming the seriousness of our intent.”

Forbes expressed there is much work to be done.

“We are developing new legal tools with our Wabanaki colleagues that allow us to share land, co-manage land and return land. After 350 years of colonization, the Wabanaki in Maine now have access to less than 1 percent of the land that once supported their place-based cultures. Maine’s rivers and mountains may carry some Wabanaki names, but the people and the stories that those names belong to have been relegated to small reservations out of sight to most Mainers,” said Forbes.