US District Court Judge George Singal this week ruled that the Penobscot Indian Nation’s reservation does not include the Penobscot river.

At the same time, Singal said the reservation does include islands on the main stem of the river, and that the tribe may do sustenance fishing on that entire main stem.

The battle over river rights stems back to an Aug. 2012 letter former Maine Attorney General William Schneider sent to the tribal warden service, saying the state, and not the tribe, had jurisdiction over law enforcement on the river. The Penobscots in turn filed suit, claiming that the river was part of its reservation. That worried some communities and businesses that felt stricter water quality standards could be placed on the Penobscot if the tribes prevailed.

In Singal’s ruling, he noted that the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act said the reservation include Indian Island and all islands north of it in the river. Nowhere in that settlement, said Singal, dud the MICSA say anything about the river itself being owned by the Penobscots.

At the same time, Singal did note that the Penobscots have a long history of sustenance fishing on the river, and the MISCA had intended for that to continue. Schneider’s position would have changed that, a step that Singal said would change a long-standing status quo.

Ina press release, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis termed the ruling a partial victory in preserving reservation boundaries for sustenance fishing, and apparently, hunting and trapping as well. Tribe members, however, were less pleased with Singal’s ruling that the Penobscot Nation’s reservation does not include the river itself. The tribe is reportedly exploring the option of an appeal.

Still on the table is a separate lawsuit filed by the state against the US Environmental Protection Agency. The state has asserted that the EPA overstepped its boundaries last year when it created two sets of standards for water quality in Maine – one for tribal waters, the second for all other waters in the state.


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