Wabanaki: People of the Dawnland

No discussion about land and land conservation in Maine would be complete without acknowledging and briefly describing the history of the interaction between two peoples and the land use practices and property ownership concepts that distinguished them. For the Wabanaki Confederacy, and in particular the Penobscot people who were the original inhabitants in much of the A.T. landscape, Maine is their Homeland:

Homeland is the land from which the Penobscot people come from and which their culture derives from. Homeland for the Penobscot would extend throughout much of what is now known as Maine and beyond its borders. An important concept concerning worldview would be Penobscot people would not be to say the land belongs to the Penobscot. Instead, the Penobscot
belong to the land and can use the land and resources while respecting and protecting it. (Penobscot Nation’s Cultural and Historic Preservation Department 113).

When European colonists arrived in Maine the result was “on one side, an evolving capitalist property system that treated natural resources as economic commodities and that granted landowners extensive, exclusive land exploitation rights, and, on the other side, an Indian property system characterized by complex shared land use rights and more ecologically stable land use practices” (Freyfogle 718). Between 1616 and 1619, between 75 and 90 percent of Native Americans in Maine died from European diseases during The Great Dying, and further wars with and among the colonial powers took their toll in the early 18th century. The European system of land ownership became fully entrenched in Maine and continues to exist over this landscape today. The people of the Wabanaki Confederacy were left with little choice but to try and recover portions of their Homeland via treaties:

  • 1794: the Passamaquoddies signed a treaty with the State of Massachusetts in which they agreed to give their territory, except for approximately 23,730 acres, to the State. The Penobscots, after they had signed treaties in 1796 and 1818 and 1833, retained islands in the Penobscot River above present-day Bangor 1796: First treaty following the original 1794 treaty to reduce Penobscot land acreage by ceding territory to the State of Massachusetts.
  • 1833: 95% of Penobscot land was transferred to the State of Maine and the Penobscot trust fund was established with the $50,000 that the State paid for the four townships (Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission)

Today, the Penobscot Nation occupies only a fraction of their ancestral territory, which is divided into Reservation Land, Trust Land, Fee Land:

  • Reservation Land: Islands System 4840.88 acres, Matagamon Reservation 24 acres
  • Trust Land – 86,357.52 acres. All lands purchased since October 10, 1980 and conveyed to the United States of America in Trust for the Penobscot Nation. Fee Land – 28,004.80 acres. All lands of the Penobscot Nation which are not in either category of Reservation Land or Trust land are owned by the Nation in Fee and are owned under and subject to all laws and regulations of the State of Maine relating to land and land ownership.

As Penobscot beliefs and traditions are deeply related to the land in the traditional territory of the Wabanaki people, it can only be hoped that in the future more of the A.T. landscape in Maine, as an overlay and construct on the traditional territory of the Wabanaki people, can be stewarded and protected in a way that reflects these traditional uses and concepts of life forces which provide for people and other things in the world.