The word "Penobscot" originates from a mispronunciation of their name for themselves: Penawapskewi. The word means "rocky part" or "descending ledges," and originally referred to their territory on the portion of the Penobscot River between present-day Old Town and Bangor.
The Penobscot Nation is headquartered in Indian Island, Maine. The tribal chief is Kirk Francis. The vice-chief is Bill Thompson.
Little is known about the Penobscot people pre-contact. Native peoples are thought to have inhabited Maine and surrounding areas for at least 11,000 years. They had a hunting-gathering society, with the men hunting beaver, otters, moose, bears, caribou, fish, seafood (clams, mussels, fish), birds, and possibly marine mammals such as seals. The women gathered and processed bird eggs, berries, nuts, and roots, all of which were found throughout their native lands.
The people practiced some agriculture but not to the same extent as that of indigenous peoples in southern New England, where the climate was more temperate. Food was potentially scarce only toward the end of the winter, in February and March. For the rest of the year, the Penobscot and other Wabanaki likely had little difficulty surviving because the land and ocean waters offered much bounty, and the number of people was sustainable. The bands moved seasonally, following the patterns of game and fish.
During the 15th century the Penobscot had contact with Europeans through the fur trade. It was lucrative and the Penobscot were willing to trade pelts for European goods such as metal axes, guns, and copper or iron cookware. Hunting for fur pelts reduced the game, however, and the European trade introduced alcohol to Penobscot communities for the first time. It has been argued that the people are genetically vulnerable to alcoholism, which Europeans frequently tried to exploit in dealings and trade. Penobscot people and other nations made pine beer, which had vitamin C; in addition to being an alcoholic beverage, it had the benefit of allaying the onset of scurvy.
When Europeans arrived, they brought alcohol in quantity. Europeans may have slowly developed enzymes, metabolic processes, and social mechanisms for dealing with a normalized high intake of alcohol, but Penobscot people, though familiar with alcohol, had never had access to the gross quantity of alcohol that Europeans offered.
The Europeans carried endemic infectious diseases of Eurasia that were new to the Native Americans, and the Penobscot had no acquired immunity. Their fatality rates from the introduction of measles, smallpox and other infectious diseases was high. The population also declined due to fighting between the Wabanaki Federation and the powerful Mohawk people of the Iroquois League, which struggled to control the fur trade. This catastrophic population depletion may have contributed to Christian conversion (among other factors); the people could see that the European priests did not suffer from the pandemics. The latter said that the Penobscot had died because they did not believe in Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Europeans began to live year-round in Wabanaki territory. At this time, there were probably about 10,000 Penobscot (a number which fell to below 500 by the early 19th century). As contact became more permanent, after about 1675, conflicts arose through differences in cultures, conceptions of property, and competition for resources. Along the Atlantic Coast in present-day Canada, most settlers were French; in New England they were generally English speaking.
The Penobscot sided with the French during the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century (the North American front of the Seven Years' War) after the English refusal to respect the Penobscots' intended neutrality. With the Spencer Phipps Proclamation of 1755, the British colonies put a bounty on the scalps of all Penobscot. With a smaller population and greater acceptance of intermarriage, the French posed a lesser threat to the Penobscots' land and way of life.
After the English defeated French colonists in the Battle of Quebec in 1759, the Penobscot were left in a weakened position. During the American Revolution, the Penobscot sided with the Patriots and played an important role in defending against British offensives from Canada. But, the new American government did not seem to recognize their contributions. Anglo-American settlers continued to encroach on Penobscot lands.
In the following centuries, the Penobscot attempted to make treaties in order to hold on to some form of land, but, because they had no power of enforcement in Massachusetts or Maine, Americans kept encroaching on their lands. From about 1800 onward, the Penobscot lived on reservations, specifically, Indian Island, which is an island in the Penobscot River near Old Town, Maine. The Maine state government appointed a Tribal Agent to oversee the tribe. The government believed that they were helping the Penobscot, as stated in 1824 by the highest court in Maine that "…imbecility on their parts, and the dictates of humanity on ours, have necessarily prescribed to them their subjection to our paternal control." This sentiment of "imbecility" set up a power dynamic in which the government treated the Penobscot as wards of the state and decided how their affairs would be managed. The government treated as charitable payments those Penobscot funds derived from land treaties and trusts, which the state had control over and used as it saw fit.
In 1790, the young United States government enacted the Nonintercourse Act, which stated that the transfer of reservation lands to non-tribal members had to be approved by the United States Congress. Between the years of 1794 and 1833, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes ceded the majority of their lands to Massachusetts (then to Maine after it became a state in 1820) through treaties that were never ratified by the US Senate and that were illegal under the constitution, as only the federal government had the power to make such treaties. They were left only the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation.
In the 1970s, at a time of increasing assertions of sovereignty by Native Americans, the Penobscot Nation sued the state of Maine for land claims, calling for some sort of compensation in the form of land, money, and autonomy for the state's violation of the Nonintercourse Act in the 19th century. The disputed land accounted for 60% of all of the land in Maine, and 35,000 people (the vast majority of whom were not tribal members) lived in the disputed territory.
The Penobscot and the state reached a settlement (known as MICSA) in 1980, resulting in an $81.5-million-dollar settlement that the Penobscot could use to acquire more tribal land. The terms of the settlement provided for such acquisition, after which the federal government would hold some of this land in trust for the tribe, as is done for reservation land. The tribe could also purchase other lands in the regular manner. The act established the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, whose function was to oversee the effectiveness of the Act and to intervene in certain areas such as fishing rights, etc. in order to settle disputes between the state and the Penobscot or Passamaquoddy.
Because it is a federally recognized sovereign nation with direct relations with the federal government, the Penobscot have disagreed with state assertions that it has the power to regulate hunting and fishing by tribal members. The Nation filed suit against the state in August 2012, contending in Penobscot Nation v. State of Maine, that the 1980 MICSA settlement gave the Nation jurisdiction and regulatory authority over hunting and fishing in the “Main Stem” of the Penobscot River as well as on its reservation.
At the request of the Nation, the US Department of Justice has joined the suit on behalf of the tribe. In addition, in an unprecedented step, five Native American congressional representatives from other jurisdictions filed an amici curiae brief in support of the Penobscot in this case. In addition to its reservation, the Nation owns islands in the river extending 60 miles (97 km) upriver; it also acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of land elsewhere in the state, as a result of the 1980 settlement of its land claim. Some analysts predict that this case will be as significant to Indian law and sovereignty as the fishing rights cases of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, which resulted in the 1974 Boldt decision affirming their rights to fishing and hunting in their former territories. The five members of the Congressional Native American Caucus who filed are Betty McCollum (D-MN), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus with Tom Cole (R-OK) (Chickasaw); Raúl M. Grijalva, (D-AZ), vice chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus; Ron Kind (D-WI), vice chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus; and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), vice chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.
Penobscot people historically spoke a dialect of Eastern Abenaki, an Algonquian language. It is very similar to the languages of the other members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. There are no fluent speakers and the last known Penobscot speaker of Eastern Abenaki died in the 1990s. A dictionary was compiled. The elementary school and the Boys and Girls Club on Indian Island are making an effort to reintroduce the language by teaching it to the children. The written Penobscot language was developed with a modified Roman alphabet; distinct characters have been developed to represent sounds that do not exist in the Roman alphabet.
In 1643, Roger Williams and Howard Chapin wrote "A Key into the Language of America." In this work, Williams explained that the language of the Narragansett people (and tribes they'd overtaken or forced into submission) used a language differing only from the northern Algonquian people, in dialect. He wrote that if one tribe's language was known, communication with the other tribe was possible; this was the case all the way north to remote areas of Labrador. Natives in Labrador spoke Algonquian and the Labrador neighbors were of same linguistic stock as the Narragansett tribe. (Williams wrote that this was not the case with the drastically different Iroquois language.) Fluent in many languages, Williams explained his knowledge of the native tongue developed due to a childhood move with his family to a native settlement in Stockbridge where his playmates were all natives. Later he lived with native people to improve his native language skill before embarking on missionary work and authoring prayer conversion booklets. His opinion, Williams wrote, was that the Narragansett (hence the Algonquian) in many cases had words that were Hebrew or in a few cases Greek that he recognized from his work in old Hebrew and Greek biblical text translations. His book "A Key into the Language of America" includes a phonetic English dictionary that Williams wished to publish so that his knowledge of this Native American language would not pass to the grave with his death.
The Penobscot traditionally made baskets out of sweet grass, brown ash, and birch bark. These materials grow in wetlands throughout Maine. However, the species are threatened due to habitat destruction and the emerald ash borer. This insect threatens to destroy all ash trees in Maine, much as it already has devastated ash forests in the Midwest.
The baskets were traditionally made for practical use, but after European contact, the Penobscot began making "fancy baskets" for trade with the Europeans. Basket-making is traditionally a woman's skill passed down in families. Many members of the tribe have been learning traditional forms and creating new variations.
The birch bark canoe was at one time an important mode of transportation for all nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Each nation makes a characteristic shape of canoe. The vessels are each made from one piece of bark from a white birch tree. If done correctly, the large piece of bark can be removed without killing the tree.
Penobscot tradition describes Gluskabe as the creator of man and women. Legends which explained phenomena such as the wind and the growing of corn were passed down by oral tradition among the generations. The French missionaries and colonists converted many Penobscot people to Christianity. In the 21st century, some members practice traditional religion; others on Indian Island are Catholic or Protestant.
In 1973 the nation opened Penobscot High Stakes Bingo on Indian Island. This was one of the first commercial gambling operations on a reservation in the United States. Bingo is open one weekend every six weeks. The Penobscot tribe has pushed for state legislation allowing them to add slot machines to their bingo hall, but it has not been granted it thus far.Charles Norman Shay, a Penobscot Tribal Elder and decorated (Bronze Star, Silver Star, Légion d'honneur) veteran of both World War II and the Korean War.
Old John Neptune, shaman mentioned by Henry David Thoreau
Andrew Sockalexis, a marathon runner who competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, inducted into the Maine Running Hall of Fame in 1989.
Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play in major league baseball.
Molly Spotted Elk (Mary Alice "Molly Dellis" Nelson Archambaud), 1903–1977, internationally known dancer who starred in the classic film, The Silent Enemy (1930), written and produced by Douglas Burden.
Maps showing the approximate locations of areas occupied by members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (from north to south):