The Penobscot River and the Penobscot Nation

In August of 2012, a statement was issued by the Maine Attorney General’s Office indicating that the Penobscot Nation’s territory did not include any portion of the Penobscot River.  Interestingly, this statement was issued one month after the approval of the Enbridge (Line 9) Tar Sands Pipeline in Canada, and shortly after a meeting between the Maine Governor and Oil and Gas Representatives in Canada. It is suspected that this is connected to the proposed East West Industrial Corridor, which would go from Coburn Gore to Calais, passing through Penobscot Nation Territory and crossing over the Penobscot River. Many believe that these developments may have prompted the State’s action against the Tribe’s territorial and water rights.

The Attorney General’s statement represented a complete departure from previous opinions, which recognized the Tribe’s inherent connection to the Penobscot River and their ongoing sustenance and subsistence fishing rights. The Penobscot Nation viewed the Attorney General’s statement as an attempted territorial taking. Therefore, they filed suit in the U.S. District Court, requesting that the court settle the territorial dispute (Penobscot Nation v. Mills).  The United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Interior joined the case on the side of the Penobscot Nation. The case focused on the Nation’s cultural and traditional connection to the Penobscot River, including their sustenance and subsistence fishing rights.

A group of towns along the Penobscot River, along with a number of industrial polluters, intervened in the case on the side of the State.  The intervenors attempted to portray the case as a water quality control case. This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. After realizing that the facts of the case had been misrepresented, two of the intervening towns (Orono and Bucksport) formally withdrew from the case. These two towns now stand in support of the Penobscot Nation’s traditional and cultural fishing rights.  

On October 14, 2015, the Court heard oral arguments in the case. At the end of 2015, U.S. District Court Judge, George Singal, issued an opinion stating that the Penobscot Nation’s reservation did not include the waters of the Penobscot River, but that the Tribe did maintain cultural and traditional sustenance and subsistence fishing rights.  The Department of Justice has requested legal clarification of the Court’s decision. The case remains on hold until that clarification is received.   

Sherri Mitchell, Esq., Penobscot Tribal Member

Taking Action

Visit to learn more.

Write to your legislators and to the Maine Attorney General’s office in support of the Penobscot Nation’s territorial and water rights.

Follow Dawnland Environmental Defense on Facebook.

On a daily basis, Wabanaki people from every nation are taking action to address the ongoing impacts of colonization. They are fighting to preserve their sovereignty, to protect their environment and resources, to ensure the well-being of future generations, and to keep their culture and languages strong. Many times, coverage in the general media presents a very colonized and biased perspective on these critical current issues. In this section, we invite you to hear the stories of Wabanaki activists, culture keepers, and newsmakers from their own perspectives.


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