On April 26, 2019, Maine joined 13 other states and the District of Columbia as Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day into law. As the state celebrates the holiday for the second time on Monday, it is important that, rather than a day off, Americans recognize it as an opportunity to direct their attention to the voices of Indigenous peoples across the country and, most importantly, around their local communities. The Penobscot Nation’s struggles with the state for environmental justice and sovereignty are potentially reaching major turning points, and there is no better time for members of the Orono, Old Town and University of Maine communities to start listening.
The Penobscot Nation has been in and out of court with the state of Maine since 2017 for lawsuits regarding the limits of the territory that the tribe has stewardship over, with debates centering around the 40-year-old Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The tribe argues that, in addition to Indian Island and those up the river from it, the tribe has a right to their namesake river itself as it is vital to their fishing rights, which are protected by the Settlement Act.
However, the tribe’s connection to the river is not as simple as a food source. The Bangor Daily News (BDN) reported that, during a rally in 2017, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis stated that their position in the case was about “more than just fishing. It’s an identity issue for the Penobscot people, and it’s about the right of the unborn to be a Penobscot.” While the state’s decision making about the river includes economic considerations, the tribe’s concerns have everything to do with their heritage, their culture and their posterity.
In 2017, the 1st Circuit Court ruled in the state’s favor 2-1, but the rehearing process for the case began on Sept. 22 of this year and the decision will be made by two, three-judge panels, according to the Maine Beacon. Additionally, a task force composed of tribal leaders, state lawmakers and a representative from Gov. Janet Mills’ administration proposed a sweeping piece of legislation in February that would make significant changes to the relationship between the state and the tribe set forth in the Settlement Act, which defines tribes more as municipalities rather than sovereign states, according to BDN. However, hearings regarding the bill, L.D. 2094, were tense and the bill itself has been in a state of limbo since legislative activity was halted in March in response to COVID-19.
These efforts ultimately point toward sovereignty as the one solution to improving the relationship between the state and Maine’s tribes. Particularly with regards to the Penobscot River, politicians such as Gov. Janet Mills have expressed their opposition to tribal stewardship. BDN reported that Mills, who was the attorney general that represented the state in the tribe’s 2017 lawsuit for territorial rights to the river, claimed that “the case was about the Penobscots trying to police the entire river,” which Chief Francis argued was a misrepresentation of their position.
While representatives may be critical of the Maine tribes’ efforts, one could and should argue that the state of Maine has failed in its role as both a steward of the Penobscot River and in its fidelity to the Penobscot Nation. The Sunlight Media Collective (SMC), self-described as “an organization of indigenous and non-indigenous media-makers and activists,” claims that the state allows the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town to pump 10 million gallons of leachate, run-off containing dangerous toxins from the landfill, into the river every year. The leachate is treated and discharged at the ND Paper facility in Old Town, but in the SMC’s documentary on the landfill Hillary Lister, co-founder of Don’t Waste ME, remarks that ND’s treatment facility was in no way designed for the complex irregular mixtures of leachate that are received from Juniper Ridge.
What is ironic about the situation with the Juniper Ridge Landfill is that, according to state law, it should not actually exist in the capacity that it currently does. In the 1980s and 1990s, the government outlawed commercial landfills in Maine in order to prevent them from taking in any more waste from outside the state. However, according to the Natural Resources Council’s Sustainable Maine Director Sarah Nichols, there exists a loophole: if a shipment of out-of-state waste is passed through a Maine recycling facility, that waste is then considered as generated within the state. As a result, 91% of the waste that passes through Lewiston’s recycling facility is from outside the state, and 93% of their waste is then sent to Juniper Ridge. While Juniper Ridge is state-owned, it is managed by Casella Waste, which earns a profit on the landfill based on how much waste they take in.
In essence, the Penobscot Nation, whose culture and diet is tied to the Penobscot River, are victims of a cycle of environmental injustice, powered by the greed of Casella and the maladministration of the state government. For politicians to say that they cannot trust the tribe with the stewardship of the river, while at the same time allowing a corporation to exploit a legal loophole and treat that river like a waste bin, is the height of hypocrisy.
Addressing lawmakers in support of L.D. 2094, Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians remarked that “there are over 560 other tribal nations around the United States that live with these rights. And as far as I know, the sky has not fallen yet.” To dedicate one day out of the year to Indigenous communities is wonderful, but it is superficial. The only way for Maine and every other state to build a meaningful and productive relationship with tribes is by giving them something a whole lot more valuable than a holiday: trust.