A Visit With a Courageous and Militant U.S. Indigenous Nation
Two our activists were recently fortunate to meet people from the Penobscot Nation in the U.S.-occupied part of Turtle Island. This is a summary of what was learned.
“The Penobscot Nation is committed to continue our efforts until the fish, wildlife and plants are safe to eat, and the sacredness is restored to the river. Only then will our culture be whole again. Only then will harmony be restored within the Sacred Circle of Life.” – Butch Phillips, Penobscot Tribal Elder, 2006.
Amid all the conflict and struggle regarding Indigenous rights in the north half of Turtle Island, little is heard of Native peoples south of the border. So during our recent vacation, which took us to New England, we seized the opportunity to pay a short visit to the Penobscot Nation, which has recently been in the news in that region. Here is some of what we learned.
There are today about 3,000 Penobscots, of whom about 700 Penobscot live on their island in the Penobscot River, close to Bangor, Maine. This is all that is left of their ancestral territories, which once embraced most of that state. They are one of the historically allied Wabanaki peoples, along with the Mi’kmaqs now living on both sides of the border.The Penobscots maintain a small and well-organized museum, which tells something of their history. They have reprinted a decree issued in 1755 by the local representative of King George. It declares war on the “perfidious” Penobscots for unexplained reasons, orders the
“killing and destroying [of] all and every of the aforesaid Indians,” and promising bounties in payment for every Penobscot scalp, including 20 pounds for scalps of children under 12 years of age.
Their problems continued under the republic. The museum displays their indignant declaration of sovereignty, issued In 1957, which pointed out that they had never surrendered to settler authority and that every treaty they signed in the interests of peaceful co-existence had been ignored and violated by settler authorities.
In 1980 the Penobscots achieved an $80 million settlement from the U.S. settler government in return for ceding the majority of the state of Maine.
Since then the Penobscots have put much effort into campaigns to save their natural environment from further devastation. We viewed a video of their struggle to save the river on which they live – a river that is the heart of their culture. Suzanne and I were struck by how closely their belief system and attitude to the environment resembled that of the indigenous Andean peoples who we have come to know in our
Bolivia defense work. The once-rich river fishery has been devastated by a system of dams, which block spawning runs, and by pulp mills, which poison the water.
The Penobscots were recently successful, in alliance with other forces, in blocking a proposal for a harmful new dam. The alliance has secured an agreement for river restoration, which has however not been implemented. The Penobscots have demanded that the Maine state government force pulp mills to remove the poisons from their
discharges into the river, pointing out that technology is readily available for such an upgrade. The state government has refused, citing the need to “protect jobs” – a settler-government term for increasing corporate profits. As a result, fish in the river are judged unsafe for consumption.
The Penobscots are basket weavers, whose exquisite and original basket designs are widely admired. They use the wood of the Brown Ash, a tree that is now endangered by environmental degradation, global warming, and a deadly parasite, the ash borer. Threatened by the loss of yet another central element of their culture, the
Penobscots have formed a Brown Ash task force and tried to work with the state government to find solutions – so far, with little success.
Native peoples living under U.S. jurisdiction have been encouraged by the settler government to become deeply involved in gambling, and this now represents an important source of Indigenous revenue. The Penobscots run a high-stakes bingo hall—the largest structure on their island.
Recently, they asked permission to replace it with a casino. The state government turned them down, hypocritically preaching to them about the dangers of gambling – only to license a capitalist concern for a much bigger casino a few miles away in Bangor. The Penobscots denounced this cynical move and said they were initiating steps to break off relations with the state government. We ran across an editorial in the local daily that was sympathetic to their cause.But on another front, the Penobscots have succeeded in establishing good governmental relations with Venezuela. The director of the Penobscot museum told us that the community had met Hugo Chávez this year, who had paid their island nation a visit during a trip to the U.S. The Penobscots have been strong supporters and beneficiaries of the Bolivarian government’s project to provide low-cost heating oil
to Indigenous peoples.
This spring a proposal was made in the U.S. House of Representatives to officially label Venezuela as a supporter of “terrorist” organizations, which would mean among other things an end to the Venezuelan petroleum aid project in the U.S. The Venezuelan program provides 100,000,000 gallons a year of free heating oil to the
Indigenous and the poor. There is no other comparable program in the U.S. – the oil tycoons do nothing but rake in the profits; the government folds its hands.
“Why would Congress do this?” asks James Sappier, Penobscot Indian Nation spokesperson and former chief. “The program has provided a donation to the U.S. low-income and poor people of almost a billion dollars.” He has alerted all the 200 Native tribes involved in the program to protest to their congressmen. “We’re worried sick that we’re going to lose this program because of this kind of frivolous
attitude of some congressmen.”
John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss
June 7, 2008