Wabanaki History

Aroostook Band of Micmac

Micmacs and Maliseets living in Aroostook County came together to form the Association of Aroostook Indians (AAI) in the mid 1960’s.  The two tribes worked together through the 70s to attain federal recognition, and separated when the Maliseets were federally recognized in 1980.  Once the two tribes went their separate ways the Maliseets became the Houlton Band of Maliseets, and the Micmacs, still unrecognized federally, became the Aroostook Micmac Council (AMC). 

Throughout the 1980s the Micmacs worked hard to achieve federal recognition. The tribe also received much appreciated legal assistance from Pine Tree Legal. After a long and arduous process, the Micmacs finally achieved federal recognition on November 26, 1991. (See legal page Recognition Act P.L. 102-171) The Micmacs changed their name from Aroostook Micmac Indians to the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. 

Since becoming federally recognized, the tribe has made great strides.  It now offers many services to tribal members, with many developing economic opportunities in the hopes that the tribe may one day be self-sufficient.

Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians

Before contact with Europeans, the Maliseets occupied much of what is now considered the eastern border line of the U.S. and Canada in northern New England. After the Jay Treaty in 1794, the Maliseets obtained free border crossing rights between the two countries because their villages spanned both countries.

In the early 1970s, some Maliseets and members of other tribes not living on recognized reservations banded together to form the Association of Aroostook Indians, which eventually allowed them access to federal and state programs.  The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians (HBMI) has been federally recognized as a government by the United States of America since October of 1980. This federal recognition gives HBMI a unique government- to-government trust relationship with the United States. In turn, recognition entitles the Houlton Band to many services provided to Indians by the United States of America, including health care through Indian Health Services (IHS), housing through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the ability to govern its own tribal affairs.

The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians is comprised of some 1700 members and is led by a Tribal Chief. A smaller band of the larger Maliseet Nation of New Brunswick, Canada, the Houlton Band calls the Meduxnekeag River home. The Maliseets are river people who have traditionally been hunters and gatherers in the St. John River basin, of which the Meduxnekeag is a tributary.

The river itself is prized for its brook and brown trout populations. Currently, HBMI has farm and commercial land holdings in Aroostook County. Much of the land borders a significant amount of the Meduxnekeag, a critical link in preserving tribal practices, traditions and history.

Passamaquoddy Tribe 

The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians were among the first Native Americans to have contact with Europeans. The wide bays along the Maine coast attracted the attention of fishermen and explorers searching for a sea route through the continent as early as the sixteenth century. Some of these first encounters were friendly, such as Samuel de Champlain’s exploration and settlement of the area in 1604, while others, such as Henry Hudson’s bombardment and looting of a village on the Penobscot River in 1609, were not. Instead of finding the mythical city of Norumbega, reputed to be rich in gold, silver, and pearls, these Europeans encountered an Indian confederacy consisting of twenty-two villages throughout western and central Maine controlled by Bessabez (Bashaba) from his village on the Penobscot River. A series of attacks by Micmacs in 1615 resulted in the death of Bessabez and the collapse of his confederacy, but even greater devastation stemmed from a terrible pandemic in 1617 that wiped out over 75 percent of the inhabitants along the New England coast. 

The surviving Passamaquoddies and Penobscots traded furs with competing English and French traders until the French established dominance in the area in the 1630s. The growing dependence of these Indians on trade goods resulted in their involvement in the so-called Beaver Wars with the Iroquois in the 1640s, 1650s, and 1660s, but peaceful relations were maintained with the English until 1677, when a series of atrocities were committed against the Penobscots.

The Penobscots’ and Passamaquoddies’ conversion to Catholicism by French missionaries fostered friendly relations with French officials during the colonial period, and these ties were strengthened by intermarriages, the most famous being that between Baron St.-Castin and Pidiwamiska, a daughter of the Penobscot chief Madockawando, but the degree of French control has been exaggerated. Each of the five wars that occurred on the Maine frontier between 1689 and 1760 resulted from a combination of English insistence on sovereignty over the Indians, disputes concerning subsistence or land, and indiscriminate mutual retaliation. 

Most of the frontier incidents that led to the first three wars occurred to the west of the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies, but these Indians were included in blanket declarations of war against all “Eastern Indians.” The third conflict, Dummer’s War (1722-27), resulted in a significant merging of Abenaki refugees into the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy villages and the subsequent extension of English settlements into the Penobscot area. Although plagued by factionalism, these Indians attempted to remain neutral in the last two wars, but mutual distrust, disputes over treaty commitments, and attacks by English scalp hunters in 1745 and 1755 ultimately dragged them into the conflicts.

The strategic location of the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies during the colonial wars and their remoteness from English settlement expansion enabled these Indians to maintain their autonomy and almost all of their land until 1760. In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, the English claimed all the tribes’ lands “by right of conquest” because of their alliance with the defeated French, and English settlement quickly spread along the Maine coast. During the Revolutionary War, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies helped the Americans defend their eastern frontier, but the Indians’ loss of land continued, with large cessions by the Passamaquoddies in 1794 and by the Penobscots in 1796, 1818, and 1833. 

First Massachusetts, and then Maine after 1820, acquired this land and administered the affairs of these Indians by right of colonial precedent, ignoring federal law and the initial protests of federal leaders. During the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies divided along kinship lines, producing two political groups: the Old Party and the New Party. Emotional disputes over education and traditional lifetime chiefs resulted in the collapse of tribal government, the imposition of state compromises, and a dramatic increase in state control over the Indians, which was not relinquished when tribal factionalism waned after 1860.

For the next century, a state agent handled Indian affairs in accordance with the Indian laws in the state legal code, and state policy was predicated on the assumption that the tribes would gradually disintegrate as individuals left the reservations. Tribal councils were not recognized, tribal governors were rarely consulted, and tribal decisions were thwarted. Additional land was lost as the state legislature reinterpreted treaties or granted long-term leases to non-Indians. Maine was the last state to grant reservation Indians the right to vote (1954), yet, since 1823 and 1842, respectively, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies have each had a nonvoting representative in the state legislature to articulate their concerns. These individuals, along with tribal activists, ultimately reversed state policy by thwarting termination of the tribes in 1957, gradually increasing tribal authority in the 1960s, and prompting the creation of the first state Department of Indian Affairs in 1965. In the late 1960s, the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots initiated the Maine Indian Land Claims suit, claiming that the land cessions to Massachusetts and Maine had violated the Indian Nonintercourse Act of 1790. Several favorable court rulings prompted a settlement in 1980.

Penobscot Nation, penawahpkekeyak

Since time immemorial, the Penobscot Nation, penawahpkekeyak, the people of the place of the white rocks, has inhabited its ancestral homeland situated within the drainage area of the Penobscot River and its many tributaries, lakes, and ponds. The Tribe’s primary village and seat of government, established on Indian Island, alenape meneha, is located immediately above Old Town Falls, a traditional Penobscot fishing place for spearing and netting salmon, shad, and alewives during spring and early summer.

As a proud riverine people, Penobscot epistemology, culture, and society are rooted in their intimate relationship to the river- the source of life that provides all that is needed; the river to which the Penobscot people belong.  The river habitat remains a nourishing source of food, medicine, connection, joy, and spirituality for Penobscot people who engage in and pass down to the next generation the ancient practices of fishing, hunting, gathering, and traveling on the same river that has sustained their people for thousands of years. 

The Penobscot Nation supported the Americans in the Revolutionary War, largely on the basis of promises and assurances to respect Penobscot territory and provide aid.  These promises were supported and endorsed by General George Washington in a 1777 letter, but were quickly forgotten once the Americans defeated the British.  In the years to follow, Penobscot Nation petitioned Congress to honor their promises and provide aid but their requests were ignored. The Penobscot Nation fared little better under the stewardship of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and after 1820, the State of Maine. Neither government honored the agreements to provide for the needs of Tribal people in exchange for the thousands of acres of land they occupied and sold.

By the mid-1830’s, the Penobscot Nation had been dispossessed of much of its aboriginal territory, retaining possession of only the Penobscot River and its islands from Indian Island north.  State appointed Indian Agents exercised total control over the dispensing of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and other necessities, purchased with the money from the sale of misappropriated Tribal lands.  For many generations, the Penobscot people lived at a bare subsistence level.

Not until two hundred years after the Revolutionary War did the Federal Government acknowledge its obligation to the native tribes in Maine.  Congress in 1790 had passed legislation to curtail exploitation of Indian lands (the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, commonly referred to as the Nonintercourse Act).  Since the United States historically took no action against states for violations of the Act, the legal presumption arose that the tribes in Maine were not protected by this legislation and that the Federal Government had no responsibility towards them.

In 1975, a United States District Court ruled that the Nonintercourse Act was applicable to the Passamaquoddy Tribe and also the Penobscot Nation (Passamaquoddy v. Morton).  This ruling established a trust relationship with the United States and in effect ordered the Federal Government to litigate a Nonintercourse Act claim against the State of Maine for damages arising from the illegal taking of thousands of acres of tribal lands.  The subsequent negotiated settlement of this case, culminating in passage by the U.S. Congress of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (PL 96-420) in 1980, marked a critical turning point in the history of the Penobscot Nation.

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, however, created a unique situation for the Penobscot Nation (and the other tribes in Maine).  By virtue of the act and its accompanying state legislation (the Maine Implementing Act), the Penobscot Nation has both the sovereign status of a federally recognized Indian tribe and the subordinate status of a municipality under Maine law.  While the State of Maine has no jurisdiction over the internal affairs of the tribe, it can (and has) required that the Penobscot Nation comply with provisions of state law that are applicable to non-Indian communities.  This has the effect of imposing a vast range of mandates and regulations on the Penobscot Nation, in areas ranging from human services to natural resources management and environmental protection. This situation has led to various disputes between the State and the Tribe. 

The Penobscot Nation’s territory includes more than 4,900 acres of reservation land – including 200+ islands in the Penobscot River.  In addition, the Nation protects and manages in excess of 90,000 acres of trust land in nine locations throughout Maine.  

Currently there are 2,398 enrolled members (2020 Tribal Census).  Over 1,399 tribal members live in Maine and are within serviceable distance, and many visit the reservation regularly.  There are 417 tribal members living at Indian Island, with a total population, including non-member residents, of 541. 

The Penobscot Nation followed a hereditary Chief system until the early 1800s when they began operating as a democracy. While leaders are elected democratically, the entire adult tribal membership, constituted as the General Meeting, serves at the legislative body of the Nation.  The executive and administrative functions of the Nation are delegated to Penobscot Nation Chief (Chief Executive Officer), a Vice-Chief, and a 12-person council.  

A Tribal Ambassador, appointed by the Chief and Council, serves as a liaison between the Nation, the federal government, and the State of Maine government.   The Nation’s administrative functions, overseen by the Chief and Vice Chief, are carried out by 16 tribal departments and include housing, health, social services, and tribal court.

The Penobscot Nation Judicial System, comprised of the Tribal Court and the Court of Appeals, is the adjudicatory branch of the Nation’s government.   The Nation is governed in accordance with its thirty-one (31) chapters of Tribal Law.  The Nation’s government is funded by federal 638 contract funds, federal, state and private grants, and a modest amount of tribally generated funds. Notably, the Penobscot Nation’s Healing to Wellness Court has been nationally recognized for innovative, culturally based intervention that combines judicial oversight with Tribal healing and wellness services. 

During the forty years since the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was created, the Penobscot Nation has worked diligently to establish basic governmental services, physical infrastructure (roads, sewer, water, housing, and schools), and human and social services enjoyed by most of the nation’s other Indian tribes for decades as a benefit of Federal recognition.  At the same time, the Nation has struggled to address complex issues of tribal rights and responsibilities arising from its legally imposed status as a Maine municipality.  The Penobscot Nation has been aggressive in implementing initiatives to foster and support the preservation and resurgence of tribal culture, traditions, and language and to protect the Penobscot River.  The Penobscot Nation is known as one of the oldest continuous governments in the world, and we remain committed to protecting our territory, preserving Penobscot culture and ensuring that future generations can live as Penobscots.