October 28, 2021

Maine tribes balance culture with future

BANGOR — Three treaties and official federal recognition have yet to solve concerns that have plagued Maine Indians for centuries, said panelists from three tribes who spoke Friday at the Native American Journalists Association’s annual conference.

From trying to balance culture with the future to sorting out legal claims over use of the Penobscot River, the issues have been persistent and nagging.

Perhaps the most controversial problems focus on the use of the river, which has been the topic of heated discussions between the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes, state, local and federal governments, the paper industry and owners of hydroelectric projects.

In 1980, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes received $27 million to settle legal claims on millions of acres in Maine. But many tribal and state officials are at odds over whether the settlement allowed the Indians control over waterways that flow through reservations.

Most state and federal government officials believe the tribes surrendered any large stake in the rivers when they signed off on the settlement nearly 16 years ago. The tribes, though, say the settlement did not include access to rivers.

“The land claims, for all intents and purposes, did not address water rights on the Penobscot River,” said John Banks, director of natural resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation.

The issue is of particular concern to the owners of the paper mills and hydroelectric projects, many of which are due for relicensing. If the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys gain more say over use of the river, the companies could be forced to pay the tribes millions of dollars in fees.

But those who spoke at the conference said the tribes are most interested in maintaining a way of life that has been handed down through the generations. Paper mills, Banks said, have polluted the water and forced the Penobscots to warn its members against eating the river’s fish.

Even in northern Maine, the MicMac tribe fears contamination from pollutants left by Loring Air Force Base, said Mary Philbrook, chief of the Aroostook Band of MicMacs.

Perhaps part of the problem is that American Indians still are not treated as equals when dealing with the state, said Passamaquoddy state Rep. Fred Moore III. Some officials in the state and federal governments, Moore said, believe that the 1980 settlement resolved all of these long-standing concerns.

“What we’re met with now is `You got what you got, now go away,”‘ Moore said. “But we’re not going to go away.”

The problems, he said, continue to fester.

For example, Moore said, generations of the Down East-based Passamaquoddys have occasionally hunted porpoises, which violates the Maine Mammal Protection Act. Passamaquoddys, though, believe that porpoise hunting is an aboriginal right that does not require ratification from the state, Moore said.

These issues facing the Passmaquoddy and Penobscot tribes are the fallout of official recognition by the U.S. government years ago. After a tribe is officially recognized, members are eligible for a host of benefits but often spend the next generation sorting out the rights and responsibilities that go with it.

Five years after earning government recognition, the Aroostook MicMacs are only now beginning to realize its pros and cons, Philbrook said.

Left out of the land claims settlement, the MicMacs had to convince Congress they were indeed a tribe, with its requisite language and history. Eventually, Philbrook said, the tribe was awarded $900,000 for land purchases and access to other funding for social programs.

The positive effects are certainly tangible — government funding has been used for a pilot Head Start project in reservation schools, allowing children to learn bits and pieces of the native language. Often, though, they come home and repeat the words to parents who never learned them, she said.

The other side of the coin, Philbrook and others said, is that some tribes can become too dependent on government funding, and too dependent on finding solutions to problems outside their own ranks.

These changes, Moore said, have been staggering.

“We’ve literally gone from tar paper shacks to cyberspace in one generation,” he said.

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