A rally to support the Penobscot Nation's fight for water rights brought members of Wabanaki tribes and their allies to the Bangor waterfront on Sunday. Credit: Murray Carpenter / Maine Public

For decades, the Penobscot Nation and the state of Maine have disagreed over who has the power to regulate water quality and sustenance fishing in the Penobscot River.

Last month, the tribe was dealt a setback in a lawsuit that aimed to resolve the issue. On Sunday, hundreds of Wabanaki tribal members and their allies gathered in Bangor for a rally to show their support.

The rally celebrated the river with song and dance.

Speaking to the crowd gathered by the river, Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot attorney and Indigenous rights activist, said the people and the river are one.

“The Penobscot River is the first relative on our census, it’s the first citizen of the Penobscot Nation. Because when you ask me who I am, where I come from, I answer with one word: Penobscot. That’s who I am, that’s who the river is, that’s who the land is, and we are all one. All of us,” she said.

But the Penobscot’s bond with their namesake river has been stressed since Europeans settled along its banks, and Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said nine years ago the question of who controls the river reached a flashpoint.

“Back in 2012, we received a letter from the Maine attorney general, basically saying ‘we don’t think you have any rights in the river. And if you disagree with that, let’s settle it in the appropriate forum,’” he said.

The tribe responded by filing a lawsuit against the state. Included as defendants are municipalities and businesses that discharge wastewater to the Penobscot River.

“So, we’ve been in litigation now for almost a decade. It attempts to remove us from 62 miles of our reservation. And, again, it’s a modern-day land taking of an Indian tribe,” he said.

The lawsuit has been working its way through the courts. And last month, in a contentious 3-2 en banc decision, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the state’s favor. The majority opinion said that treaties show the Penobscot reservation “plainly and unambiguously includes certain islands in the Main Stem but not the Main Stem itself.”

Gov. Janet Mills has been on the opposing side of this legal battle, first as Maine’s attorney general and now as governor. Francis said the tribes have seen a lot of support from legislators in recent years, but tribal efforts have been stymied by the executive branch, such as a gaming bill recently vetoed by the governor.

Mills’ spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor isn’t interested in fighting with the Maine tribes, but in engaging in a constructive dialogue. She said the court ruling affirms the state’s position but says there is plenty of room for common ground.

“The State of Maine agrees that the Penobscot River and its tributaries should be clean and that individual tribal members have a right of sustenance fishing, and it has taken the position that the river should be available for all people to use and has taken action to protect the water quality of the river and assisted in the removal of dams that blocked the passage of fish in recent years,” Crete said.

Francis said despite the majority appeals court decision, he is heartened by the 80-page dissenting opinion. And he said the tribe is forging ahead with its legal fight.

It is now planning to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.