Supreme Court denies Penobscot appeal over namesake river

Native Americans marching in support of one of several tribal sovereignty bills pass by the governor's mansion on April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. On Monday, April 18, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the Penobscot Indian Nation a blow by rejecting its appeal over ownership and regulation of the tribe's namesake river. (AP Photo/David Sharp)
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Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined an appeal by the Penobscot Indian Nation in its fight with Maine over ownership and regulation of the tribe’s namesake river.

It was a bitter defeat for the tribe that sued a decade ago, claiming the Penobscot River is part of its reservation.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said it was a disappointing outcome in a legal case that goes to the “core identity of the Penobscot Nation.”

“We see this as a modern day territorial removal by the state by trying to separate us from our ancestral ties to our namesake river,” Francis told The Associated Press.

A federal judge previously ruled that the reservation includes islands of the river’s main stem, but not the waters. There were appeals to a panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of appeals and then to the full appeals court.

On Monday, the nation’s top court without comment, declined to hear the tribe’s appeals over river regulation.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills had no immediate comment on Monday.

The ruling came as the Maine Legislature was considering several measures that relate to tribal sovereignty.

The most far-reaching legislative proposal would restore sovereignty rights forfeited by tribes under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. The House enacted the bill Monday, but it was pending in the Senate. It faces a possible veto by the governor.

The Penobscots, whose reservation is on an island in the river, sued in 2012 after then-Attorney General William Schneider issued an opinion that the tribe’s territory was limited to islands.

The tribe said the lawsuit was necessary to protect tribal authority over its ancestral river and ensure sustenance rights. But state regulators argued that a win by the tribe would create “a two-tiered system” on the Penobscot that would be a detriment to the general public.

Francis said it the Supreme Court’s action was probably the end of the road for the appeal but he said the tribe wouldn’t give up.

“We’ll continue to see every avenue to remedy this,” he said.