The Penobscots are an ancient river-based people. Taking away their waterway is cultural theft.
FRYEBURG — In 2012, then-Attorney General William Schneider, on behalf of the state of Maine, initiated a dubious claim against the Penobscot Nation, challenging their rights to the river water on their reservation. The Penobscot were left no choice but to defend their territory through legal channels.
Schneider’s successor, Janet Mills, is continuing the litigation process with the backing of powerful corporate interests, along with the support of some municipalities where these corporations are based. The lawsuit’s intent is clear: to rescind the Penobscots’ inherent rights to the river that bears their name.
The Penobscot people are an ancient riverine culture that has lived in synergy with the river for thousands of years before the disruption of European encroachment. Like other indigenous peoples of the Americas who have been subjected to genocide and conquest, the heritage and culture of the native peoples of Maine need protection and respect, not continued assault.
The Penobscot should be able to live in peace and safety after enduring the multigenerational traumas inflicted upon them. Why are we engaged in such a battle involving our own Maine peoples? Why is the state poised to seize part of the Penobscot reservation, which has always included the river, using our tax dollars?
Attorney General Mills has an opportunity in this case to champion the rights of Maine’s indigenous people. History informs us that the Penobscot territory has been reduced to its current boundaries and negotiated by the state for 195 years.
Their territory was purportedly legally protected: first in 1775, through a resolve passed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820); again through the 1796 Treaty with Massachusetts, and, finally, again through the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.
Then-Attorney General James T. Tierney cited the Indian Claims Settlement Act in 1988, when he issued an opinion that the Penobscot reservation included the water of the Penobscot River and that the tribe was entitled to take fish within the reservation boundaries as long as the fish were used for individual sustenance. It would be in the state’s best interest for Mills to issue an opinion that aligned with Tierney’s, if solely for the purpose of achieving truth and reconciliation.
The state cannot succeed alone in this lawsuit; it must have accomplices. I understand that Bruce Bourque, a senior lecturer in the anthropology department at Bates College, is serving as the state’s expert witness against the Penobscot Nation in the theft of their ancestral river. His deposition aids and emboldens the state in its attempts of another breach of treaty, to further lay claim that the Penobscot have no rights to the river.
Bourque has stirred controversy among his fellow anthropologists and local historians with his “thousand-year theory.” Essentially rewriting Native American history, Bourque hypothesizes that the “red paint people” are a lost tribe that existed thousands of years ago and mysteriously vanished, and that the Penobscot and other tribes of the Wabanaki Confederation (which also includes the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mikmaq and Passamaquoddy peoples) are relatively recent arrivals to the region.
Bourque’s theory puts his own self-interests in sharp focus as it allows the Maine State Museum – where he is curator – to hold on to any artifacts, bones or other relics that are over a thousand years old, on the grounds that they belong to some mysterious, vanished race rather than to Maine’s native tribes.
This is one example of continued oppression that the Wabanaki face. Actions such as this occur as part of a long continuum in the erasure of their inherent rights and cultural narrative, a history and culture that remain under threat of continued ethnocide and colonization. Bourque’s interests appear to be aligned with his position in the state government and not in the preservation and dignity of native peoples.
While Bourque’s actions raise serious questions regarding academic integrity, of greater concern is the willingness of the Maine Attorney General’s Office to use such revisionist history to advance their corporate-backed assault on the heritage, identity, dignity and human rights of our state’s indigenous peoples. Such institutionalized racism has no place in Maine’s reputable state institutions.
I ask others to question the Maine attorney general’s case against the Penobscot and critically examine Bruce Bourque’s conflict of interests. We can all learn from this example of harmful and unnecessary cultural conflict. As citizens, we have a duty and a right to speak out against this lawsuit and the state government’s insistence on instigating this conflict with our tax dollars.
— Special to the Press Herald
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nickie Sekera is a resident of Fryeburg.