How Maine got the land and is battling one tribe for more
This story was co-published with The New Farmer’s Almanac in Jan. 2021
In the fall of 1980, teenagers Kirk Francis and Mark Chavaree watched their Penobscot Nation elders make national headlines from Maine. Some media accounts labeled the tribe’s historic land claims settlement a Native rights victory; others called it the surrender of tribal sovereignty. Four decades later and upon Maine’s bicentennial, now-Chief Francis and Chavaree are tribal leaders — and they are still sparring with the state, a continuation of a two-hundred-year-long tussle over who owns the land: the Penobscot people who have spent millennia along the Penobscot River, or the colonizers who attained the territory illegally?
Today’s land dispute centers on portions of the Penobscot River that flow through the tribe’s reservation boundaries. Francis and Chavaree are among an estimated 2,400 tribal citizens who contend that rights to the riverbed belong to them, an argument advancing at a particularly advantageous time in the United States. Since the Indigenous uprising at Standing Rock, the pendulum of justice increasingly favors federal Indian law and policy. Historic treaties signed between tribes and the US are being recognized for the “supreme Law of the Land” of which they are. More importantly, they’re being upheld. The recent landmark US Supreme Court case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, is a similar land battle and the most immediate victory of its kind. The fight for the Penobscot River will likely be decided by a federal appellate court before the year is out.
For Francis and Chavaree, their stake in the river war is generational. Fifty-one-year-old Francis recently secured his fifth term as Chief of the Penobscot Nation, making him the tribe’s longest-serving leader since elections were first held in 1850. The son of a longtime tribal councilman, Francis first followed in his father’s footsteps serving on the council, then becoming chief in 2006. In June 2020, Chavaree, who is fifty-eight, marked his third decade as the tribe’s in-house staff attorney. Born and raised on Indian Island in the heart of the Penobscot Nation, Chavaree is the grandson of fluent Penobscot speakers, the language of the Pa’nawampske’wiak…