'Water is Life' - Penobscot Leaders Say They Won't Give Up Fight Over River

Jul 9, 2017

BANGOR, Maine - Penobscot elders vowed at a rally Sunday to continue to fight a court ruling that affirms the state of Maine as the regulatory body with sole authority over the Penobscot River, a view with which the tribe disagrees.

"Water is life. For us to watch it go back to the state it was in, it's heart breaking to me. With big business, they'll find a way to use that resource up." said tribal member Dean Francis.  

Francis says the Penobscot nation has witnessed its sacred river morph from a pristine waterway teaming with salmon, to an industrial dumping ground. While clean water efforts over the last 40 years have helped, Francis says elders have already paid the price. What remains now, he says, is to restore habitat, and safeguard a clean river for future generations.

"You know, all we can do is hope that common sense prevails," he says.

In late June of this year, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston affirmed a 2015 ruling made by U.S. District Judge George Singal, stemming from a case brought by the Penobscot Nation against the State of Maine back in 2012. Singal found that the Penobscot Nation could lay claim to its reservation, Indian Island, and other islands in the vicinity, but not to the water itself - which flows in and around Penobscot territory. 

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis greeted that ruling with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it reaffirmed tribal sustenance fishing rights, as well as hunting and trapping rights in the area, but he says not to include the water itself defies logic. In the latest ruling, Circuit Judge Juan Toruella, appears to have agreed. In his dissenting statement, Torruella opined that the sustenance fishing, guaranteed by at least three treaties, could only be exercised if at least part of the river itself was included.

"All tribes in the country should be scared of this type of stuff," said Chief Francis. He says he is frustrated that the issue has been twisted into a battle over authority and control. 

"What the state has kind of tried to make this about, is us trying to control the river," said Francis, "that we're trying to shut down industry and exclude people. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are simply trying to protect our sustenance fishing rights."

Supporters, such as Tina Malcolmson of Portland, have attended a series of water rallies in recent months, on behalf of the tribe. Malcolmson was dismayed by the latest ruling. "I think it's another version of colonialism as was begun in 1492, and has continued." said Malcolmson, "I'm shocked. I'm shocked that my state would participate in this effort to take more, after all that the tribes have given up- even more they're trying to get."

Meanwhile, state leaders are pleased by the courts' decisions so far, which they say bring clarity of oversight to everything from paddlers and anglers to water quality.  And, they say, their goals regarding river health are not dissimilar to those of the tribe.

"We look forward to working with the Penobscot Nation on areas of mutual interest," said Maine Attorney General Janet Mills in statement. "We respect and honor the Penobscot Nation’s deep historical and cultural ties with the river and look forward to working with them to preserve the health and vibrancy of this major watershed which is so critical to all the people of Maine.”