Part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the people of the Penobscot Indian Nation are indigenous mainly to the Penobscot River watershed. Like our other relations in the Confederacy, including the Maliseet, Mikmaq, and Passamaquoddy, we have resided for over 10,000 years in the regions now located within the boundaries of the State of Maine. The tribe was comprised of numerous bands and families that lived in a traditional migratory pattern, spending the summers on the coast and near other waters, while moving to inner lands during the snow. When early European explorers found our powerful confederacy upon their arrival, beginning in the 1600s, an apocalyptic time of pestilence, believed to be European introduced smallpox began to decimate our population. Penobscot numbers were estimated to be over 20,000 at its peak. European encroachment and the taking of lands forced our people into denser communities, allowing infectious disease to spread more quickly. By 1803 – only 347 Penobscot remained, based on our earliest recorded census.
Increased warfare between English settlers and the Native people took place between 1675 and 1760. Most of this was a result of the battle for control by the French and English over the Northeastern lands which we resided. During this period, the Wabanaki Confederacy tribes allied with the French, which had been the friendlier trading group, while the English formed a strong military alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy. The French and their native allies made peace with the English after the 1760 war – but the wars had further exhausted the strength of the Wabanaki Nations and their resources. At the request of George Washington, we Penobscot sided with the American colonists in the Revolutionary War, and there are archival documents of the names of Penobscot who fought for US independence. The tribe’s efforts though would soon be largely forgotten as further land acquisition and forced assimilation dictated local area policy.
This trend continued even as our people would faithfully serve in every major U.S. war and conflict in the country’s history. Systemic prejudice and discrimination regulated tribal people to second class citizenship. Economic and social poverty became engrained and harder to overcome. Treaties were made between the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under the threat of further war and massacres. These treaties pertained largely to remaining lands, goods, and services to be provided by the new State of Maine, starting in 1820, but were heavily controlled by the state bureaucracy, who assumed it had pervasive authority over the Tribes, even though the treaties only called for the payment of goods and annuities. Over time, the State assumed a role of guardian, our people wards of the state, when we had no intention to be considered so. What dwindling lands remained with the tribes, would continue to be appropriated. In the early 1950s, in light of the guardianship role the state evolved into, some Penobscot and Passamaquoddy leaders and elders believed these land transfers were in violation of the Federal Trade and Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, which forbid the transfer of Indian territories without the consent of Congress. This legal position became the basis for a threatened land claims suit against the State of Maine in the late 1970s. Our tribes made important strides towards self-determination as we started to prevail on relevant matters, such as whether we were still tribes, as legally defined by federal criteria, and if we fell under laws such as the Major Indian Crimes Act. First in JTC – Passamaquoddy Tribe v. Morton (1975), the federal courts found that the 1790 Intercourse Act established a trust relationship between our tribes and the federal government that the State of Maine could not terminate. While defending a suit by a former attorney over service fees, the Federal Court also issued a decision that the tribes had retained its inherent sovereign immunity. On the strength of these legal victories, the State of Maine requested the federal government join in negotiations. These discussions led to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. This Act, formalized by Congress, provided financial resources for restitution and to purchase a sizable land based codified in the agreement.
The tribe has always had a government of self-rule in place, but after 1980, implemented its own departmental structure, based on the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The tribe has tried to remain as self-sufficient as possible under the limited means and historical barriers to succeed in the business world. Like all other tribes, Penobscot citizens live to maintain traditional cultural ways, while living in an ever-changing world of technological expansion. Many of our people work at area jobs like any other community. The Penobscot Nation government is currently the largest employer. Our Nation has an abundance of trades people who work in crafts and construction. We also have hunters who provide guide services to non-Penobscot and others who harvest sea life for sale to market. As with all tribes, we have also attempted to operate enterprises in the business world.
We have had a number of commercial ventures, some successful for many years, other not so. We cover the Penobscot Nation history in business in the About Us section of this website.
In 2006, the tribal chief and council formed PINE under Chapter 17 of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 (48 Stat. 984, 25 U.S.C. §§ 461 – 479). The first priority of this structuring was to avoid some of the organizational conflicts that can result from businesses run by tribal government. Penobscot citizens with business backgrounds, and professional advisory boards, including non-tribal help, are able to focus more time and experience on the corporation than the previous model allowed.