Plansowes Dana, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and staffer for Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness, fills jugs of spring water in Robbinston to bring back to the Pleasant Point Reservation. Credit: Nick Woodward / Maine Public

For decades, some members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe have shared a message with family members and visitors coming to the reservation at Pleasant Point: Don’t drink the water.

They’ve long complained about its color, smell and tests reporting excess levels of contaminants. Recent efforts to improve the water treatment system have some members hopeful that a fix could be coming — but tribal leaders see the solution as a matter of tribal sovereignty.

Plansowes Dana parked her truck beside a former church building in Robbinston, nearly 10 miles outside of the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation. Dana grabbed a seven-gallon jug out of the truck bed, splashed it with vinegar to clean it, then stuck it underneath a trickling spring nearby.

“Well, we’ve been getting water here for probably 15, 20 years,” Dana said. “The community has been coming here. And before, this was a church, and everybody just came to get the water here.”

Dana said ever since she can remember, tribal members either used water from this spring — or purchased bottled water at the store — for drinking, cooking, even brushing teeth. It’s because the water coming out of their tap at home was often discolored and smelled bad.

“Growing up, my parents always said, ‘Don’t drink the water. The water is not good for you,'” Dana said. “And so I have a childhood memory of always looking for different wells, places to go to. And we would go and fill our jugs and bring them home. And that was always a rule in my house.”

“And we grew up, all our lives, lugging water. And I’ve taught my children the same thing. And I can remember my oldest son,” she said. “When he was 1 1/2, 2, he held up an empty water jug. He was like, ‘We need water.’ And it really hit me. Like, ‘Oh my God, this is a real issue.’ I was so used to living it that it just had become a part of life.”

At the core of the issue, residents said, is the source of the tribe’s water: nearby Boyden Lake. The lake is full of a lot of organic matter, including leaves, and requires treatment.

And while officials point to water samples saying that the water is safe, several recent test results showed that the water has repeatedly exceeded federal limits on trihalomethanes. Those are contaminants resulting from the disinfection process that federal authorities say may increase cancer risk and liver and kidney problems.

“It’s an extraordinarily hard situation to stomach. It’s something that most Americans would never tolerate,” said Corey Hinton, a Passamaquoddy tribal member and lawyer who’s been working with the tribe on the issue.

“But it happens to communities in socially disadvantaged places — whether it’s Indigenous communities, poor urban communities, or other parts of rural America. There’s just such a need for water infrastructure in our country. And we are, unfortunately, the prime example of why that’s needed.”

Pleasant Point Chief Maggie Dana said the tribe has been looking at different solutions for years. But the COVID-19 pandemic only increased that urgency. Elders were told to stay home but couldn’t trust the water coming out of their taps.

“So if you’re laying in bed, and you’re sleeping, and you’re sick, obviously you need water to get better, at the minimum,” Dana said. “And how does that play a role if, say, you run out of bottled water, and you have to drink tap water?”

In response, Plansowes Dana and other staffers from Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness designed a color-coded system to ensure that elders had water during the pandemic. Each day, elders have put colored pieces of paper along their windows. When the paper is yellow, it means they need something. Dana will knock on their door, check what they need, then bring supplies back, including water.

“So I’m lugging at least 100 gallons a week, sometimes more, sometimes less,” Dana said. “But I’m still trying to reach people in the community if you need water. So I’m hoping that I’ll start lugging more water for people.”

While the system has worked as a short-term fix, the tribe is pursuing several other solutions. A new well with a hand pump is being developed at a local site, so members won’t have to travel miles away to access water. A potential project with MIT could also bring filters into tribal members’ homes. And the state and tribal leaders are partnering to fund a new carbon filtration system at the Passamaquoddy Water District’s treatment plant.

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills, said the administration began working with the tribe two years ago on the issue, and that the new system should address the color, odor and the trihalomethanes in the water. Crete said “if properly maintained,” the system “can represent a long-term solution to the water quality issues” and give the district time to search for additional water sources.

Yet tribal leaders said to create a long-term solution, major changes are needed to the laws governing tribal sovereignty, including the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. Chief Maggie Dana said when the tribe started drilling exploratory wells within the town of Perry about eight years ago, the town pushed back and passed a moratorium on large-scale water extraction.

The chief said if legislative changes to restore tribal sovereignty are passed, it would be easier for the tribe to acquire lands and use them as a water source.

“So that’s our solution,” she said. “But we don’t have access to that, or there’s barriers to that. And that kind of goes back to the state of Maine, the Settlement Act. It just seems like over and over, the pattern is, we’re restricted by the Settlement Act. To me, it just holds us all back. And in this case, it affects people. Their health. Everything.”

A measure that would expand the sovereignty of Maine’s tribes has been carried over to the next legislative session.

As she finished loading a jug of water into her pickup truck, Plansowes Dana said she’s encouraged by the new efforts. But after so many years of distrust, she said it could take a while for some tribal members to believe that the water is truly safe.

“But I think there’ll be some trust once they see the reports, and they know that it’s certified by our own people. And I think we’ll get there,” Dana said. “It’s going to take a long time. I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime, but now I have hope for that.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.