Penobscot leader speaks at Bowdoin
Barry Dana, Chief of the Penobscot Nation, opened his Common
Hour lecture on February 22 by asking his children what they would want
him to tell the Bowdoin campus about their people. His younger son said
that, although some of his teachers were hard, they had a good school.
His daughter wanted to tell Bowdoin, "We are our own tribe."
In fact, that is perhaps one of the most integral ideas
to the Penobscot culture that elder Dana conveyed in his talk. Even in
council proceedings, all decisions are considered in terms of how they
will affect the next seven generations of the tribe. Dana stressed how
different this consideration was from the workings of modern federal and
state government in the U.S., especially when dealing with regulation
of the water quality of the rivers upon which the tribe relies for food,
culture, and traditions.
While water regulations take into consideration basic water
quality, they currently neglect the fact that the Penobscots use the rivers
as a drinking water source, canoe and swim in their waters, and catch
the fish that live there. Paper mills upstream release toxic organic chemicals
such as dioxins that accumulate in the food chain and end up in the fish
that the Penobscot people eat.
Dana and his people considered this environmental oversight
to be as much of a disgracing as using an Indian chief as a mascot for
a sports team. Perhaps even more so since poisoning of the rivers causes
Dana's people to suffer from higher rates of death from cancer compared
to populations outside the reservation. How has a small nation of about
500 people managed to maintain its sovereignty, and more importantly,
protect the environment upon which its culture is connected under the
pressure from the federal government?
This issue came to a head in the legal controversy in which
the Penobscot tribe is presently embroiled. The Maine government has tried
to subpoena the tribe to release documents concerning correspondence with
EPA about controlling the water quality of the Penobscot and other rivers
the tribe uses. Maine and 44 other states gained control of the permit
process that allows discharge of chemicals by companies that was formerly
regulated by the EPA. However, the EPA still remained in control of permits
and water quality on tribal lands.
Since the Penobscot Nation considers itself an independent
governing entity with its own say in the water quality issues of their
rivers, the paper mills on the Penobscot River believed the tribe would
set stricter regulations on pollution discharge. The tribe opposed the
subpoena request because its government is independent; therefore, the
court's order had no bearing in their affairs.
In the face of being held in contempt of court, the tribe
agreed to remove its opposition to the National Pollution Discharge Elimination
System (NPDES), which the state uses to grant permits to the paper mills
if the government would take tribal uses such as fishing and the gathering
of wild plants into consideration when granting permits.
Dana's lecture was the opening event for the Symposium on Race, Justice, and the Environment held on Bowdoin's campus this past weekend. The Penobscot's battle highlights the troubles many Native American and other minority groups have faced when they have tried to address how environmental degradation has affected their people. In a culture where a person's identity, family, social structure, and culture all depend on the health of a river, the modern methods of environmental management may not be sufficient.