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Penobscot tribal nation
Seal of the Penobscot Tribe of Maine
Total population
2,278 enrolled members[1]
Regions with significant populations
Canada (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec), United States (Maine)
English, Eastern Abenaki[2]
Related ethnic groups
other Algonquian peoples

The Penobscot (Panawahpskek) are a Northeastern American Indian tribe in Maine and First Nations band in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. The Penobscot Nation, formerly known as the Penobscot Tribe of Maine, is the federally recognized tribe of Penobscot people in the United States.[3] They are part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, along with the Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi'kmaq nations, all of whom historically spoke Algonquian languages. Their main settlement is now Penobscot Indian Island Reservation located within the state of Maine along the Penobscot River.


  • Name 1
  • Government 2
    • Pre-contact 2.1
    • Contact and colonization 2.2
    • Land claims 2.3
  • Language 3
  • Visual art 4
    • Baskets 4.1
    • Birchbark canoes 4.2
  • Religion 5
  • Gaming 6
  • Notable Penobscot 7
  • Maps 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


The word "Penobscot" originates from a mispronunciation of their name Penawapskewi. The word means "rocky part" or "descending ledges" and originally referred to the portion of the Penobscot River between Old Town and Bangor.


The Penobscot Nation is headquartered in Indian Island, Maine. The tribal chief is Kirk Francis.[3] 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.[4] They subsisted on beavers, otters, moose, bears, caribou, fish, seafood (clams, mussels, fish), birds, bird eggs, berries, nuts, and possibly marine mammals such as seals, all of which were found throughout their native lands.[5] 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.[6] Food was potentially scarce only toward the end of the winter, in February and March. For the rest of the year, the Penobscot as well as other Wabanaki likely had little difficulty feeding themselves because the land offered much, and the number of people was sustainable.[7] The bands moved seasonally depending on where the most bountiful game and fish would be.

Contact and colonization

Portrait of Sarah Molasses, daughter of John Neptune and Molly Molasses, collection of Peabody Museum (Harvard)

Contact with Europeans was not uncommon during the 16th century because the fur trade 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 in addition to being an alcoholic beverage had the additional benefit of allaying the onset of scurvy. When Europeans arrived they brought alcohol in quantity. It is possible that Europeans had slowly developed enzymes, metabolic processes, and social mechanisms for dealing with a normalized high intake of alcohol, where Penobscot people though familiar with alcohol had never had access to the gross quantity of alcohol that Europeans offered. It is also perhaps essential to maintain a distinction between poverty induced risk factors for alcoholism, from a 'blame the victim' mentality which would align alcoholism purely and solely with genetics. If Europeans brought and manipulatively shared alcohol in order to affect a certain complicity in members of the Penobscot Nation in regard to land deals, and if they also effectively imported poverty to the Nation, and furthermore if that poverty resulted in high rates of alcoholism, then it would be irresponsible to suggest that alcoholism in the Nation stemmed from genetics alone. The Europeans also brought new endemic diseases of Eurasia, to which the Penobscot had no acquired immunity. Their fatality rates from measles, smallpox and other 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 also led to Christian conversion (amongst other factors); the European priests, who did not suffer from the pandemics, said that the Penobscot ancestors had died because they did not believe in Jesus Christ.[7]

At the beginning of the 17th century, Europeans began to live year-round in Wabanaki territory.[7] At this time, there were probably about 10,000 Penobscot (a number which fell to below 500 in the early 19th century).[8] As contact became more permanent, after about 1675, conflicts arose through differences in cultures, conceptions of property and competition for resources. 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. The Spencer Phipps Proclamation of 1755 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.[7]

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. [7]

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, and Americans kept encroaching on their lands. From about 1800 onward, the Penobscot lived on reservations, specifically Indian Island off the Maine coast. 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."[7] 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.[7]

Land claims

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, 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 violation of this Act. 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 settlement, reached in 1980, resulted in an 81.5-million-dollar settlement that the Penobscot could use to acquire more tribal land; it was agreed under the terms of the settlement that 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.[9]

The Penobscot have had disagreements with the state, which asserts 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.[10] 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 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 as the fishing rights cases of Native American tribes in the Northwest in the 1970s.[10] 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), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation; 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.[2] 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.[11] 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.[12]

Visual art


The Penobscots 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. Originally, the baskets were made for practical use, but after European contact, the Penobscot began making "fancy baskets" for trade with the Europeans. Basket-making is traditionally a women's skill passed down in families. Many members of the tribe have been learning traditional forms and creating new variations.[13]

Birchbark canoes

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.[14]


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 are Catholic or Protestant on Indian Island.[7]


In 1973 the nation opened Penobscot High Stakes Bingo on Indian Island. This was the first commercial gambling operation 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.[15]

Notable Penobscot


Maps showing the approximate locations of areas occupied by members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (from north to south):

See also


  1. ^ "Penobscot Indian Nation". US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  2. ^ a b "Abnaki, Eastern". Ethnologue. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  3. ^ a b "Tribal Directory". National Congress of American Indians. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  4. ^ The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes. American Friends Service Committee, 1989.
  5. ^ Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes
  6. ^ James Francis. "Burnt Harvest: Penobscot People and Fire", Maine History 44, 1 (2008) 4-18.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Wabanakies of Maine and the Maritimes
  8. ^ "History", Penobscot Nation.
  9. ^ Diana Scully. "Maine Indian Claims Settlement: Concepts, Contexts, and Perspectives". 14 February 1995.
  10. ^ a b Gale Courey Toensing, "Congress Members Support Penobscot v. Maine in Unprecedented Court Filing.", Indian Country Today, 5 May 2015, accessed 5 May 2015
  11. ^ "Penobscot Nation Boys & Girls Club". Retrieved 14 January 2011. 
  12. ^ [7], Bureau of Indian Affairs
  13. ^ [8], Penobscot Nation
  14. ^ [9], Penobscot River
  15. ^ [10]
  16. ^ [11]
  17. ^ [12]
  18. ^ See McBride, Bunny. 1995. Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

External links

  • Penobscot Indian Nation, official website
  • "The Ancient Penobscot, or Panawanskek". Historical Magazine, February 1872
  •  "Penobscot Indians".  
  • Penobscot Bingo
  • Entirely by hand... from the ground up, Tom Hennessey", Bangor Daily News
  • Wabanaki Ethnography, National Park Service
  • Harrison, Judy. "Indian Reservation Priests Follow a 300 year old tradition", Bangor Daily News
  • Indian Treaties
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