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THIS IS AMERICA – Penobscot Indians - 2003-09-21

Broadcast: September 22, 2003



Native American tribes in the United States have treaties with the government. These treaties establish special rights for America's remaining Indians as nations within a nation. I’m Faith Lapidus.


And I’m Steve Ember. We visit one of these, the Penobscot Nation, this week on the VOA Special English program THIS IS AMERICA.



The Penobscot Nation has three-thousand members. Most live in the state of Maine, in the far northeastern corner of the United States.

Five-hundred of them live on Indian Island, in the middle of the Penobscot River. Homes stand on the edge of thick forests of many kinds of trees. Indian Island is not far from the Great North Woods.

As you drive across the bridge to the island, one of the first buildings you notice is small and brown. In front stands the colorful statue of an Indian. This building is the Penobscot Nation Museum.

Tribal historian James Neptune welcomes visitors inside. He directs the museum. As you step through the door, you feel as though you have entered the past. A world of traditional culture surrounds you.


Among the items on display are baskets of all sizes. These containers are made from brown ash trees and sweet grass.

A narrow wooden boat hangs from a wall. Penobscot Indians made this canoe in the late eighteen-hundreds. They used the outer part of birch trees.

As you continue, you pass exhibits of walking sticks and ceremonial war clubs. There are also snow sticks. People use these to play a game in the snow. Tribal artists have carved beautiful designs into the objects in the exhibits.

You see Penobscot drums and jewelry -- necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings. And there are the moccasins that Penobscots wore. These shoes are made of animal skin and trimmed with beads.



James Neptune, the tribal historian, says a film will start soon. But it is hard to stop looking around. The objects in the museum describe a way of life that began thousands of year before European explorers arrived.

Much of the Penobscot homeland once extended north to what is now Canada. In earlier spring times, the Indians followed the river to the Atlantic coast. They caught salmon and other fish. And they caught shellfish. When fall came, they hunted elk, moose, deer and smaller animals along the river.


Over the years, life changed. Dams went up along the Penobscot River. Several dams now separate the Indians from the coast. Manufacturing began. Some animals and fish disappeared from along the river.

In August, the United States Environmental Protection Agency made a decision that affects the Penobscot Nation. The case involves an unusual number of cancers among people on Indian Island. The tribe says it believes a paper company let dioxin, a poison waste, settle into the river.

But the agency decided there is not enough pollution to order a cleanup. At last report the Penobscot Indians were considering an appeal.


Many of the Indians work in low-paying industries. Others do not have any job. So the Penobscot Nation is trying to develop new industries. Government agencies have provided almost one-hundred-seventy-thousand dollars toward this goal. Some of this money will enable the Indians to explore, for example, the possibility of making and selling canoes.

In the past, tribal people made the boats themselves. But they stopped many years ago. It required too much time and effort. It was easier to buy the canoes in a store.

James Neptune estimates that to build one canoe by hand takes four-hundred hours. This does not include the time spent gathering materials from trees. Still, the Penobscots hope other people will want canoes handcrafted in the Indian tradition.


Selling canoes is not the only hope. This November, voters in Maine will decide if Indian tribes can operate casino gambling in the state. A casino would be built outside tribal land.

Many Indian tribes across America have become wealthy by operating games of chance. So this is an important issue for the Penobscot Nation.



Penobscot Indians are American citizens. They must obey some of the laws of the state of Maine. But they also make rules for themselves. A tribal group governs the reservation and provides local services. A sagama (SAH gah MAH), or chief, heads this council.

The Penobscot live on their own land. This land is in the same area where their ancestors lived. In the late seventeen-hundreds, Penobscot Indians helped General George Washington win the War of Independence from Britain. After that, the Penobscot were permitted to stay in Maine. In nineteen-eighty, an agreement with the government let the Indians buy back more of their homeland.


Many Indians lost most of their original land when the newcomers settled America. The United States government made hundreds of agreements but often violated them. Many tribes were forced into areas where they could not meet their own needs. Thousands of people died of starvation and disease.

In the sixteen-hundreds, other Indians invaded Penobscot territory in what is now Maine. After that, many Penobscot died of disease. A tribal history says it was probably smallpox brought by settlers from Europe. The Penobscot Indians also fought long wars with another tribe, the Mohawk Indians.


In sixteen-seventy-five, Indians in Maine began to fight against English settlers. These Indians supported French settlers. Other tribes allied with the English. France and England both wanted to claim North America.

The Penobscot Indians joined two other Indian tribes in an alliance. This was called the Wabanaki Confederacy. The English allied with the Iroquois Indian Confederacy.

The conflict between the English and the French, and the Indians on both sides, lasted almost one-hundred years. By the seventeen-sixties, the English had won. They gained a large amount of American land. The French and the Wabanaki Confereracy made peace with the English.

Then, in seventeen-seventy-five, the American Revolution began. At that time, the Penobscot were still hostile to the English. The king of England governed the thirteen American colonies. The Indians helped the colonies defeat the English and become the United States of America.


Maine did not become a separate state until eighteen-twenty. Before then, the Penobscot and other Indians made treaties with Massachusetts. These agreements dealt mainly with land, goods and services that Massachusetts was to provide. But the Indians said Massachusetts violated the treaties.

In time, the Penobscot and other Maine Indians joined together to bring a court case. They claimed almost two-thirds of the territory of Maine.

On October tenth, nineteen-eighty, President Jimmy Carter signed a measure. It gave the Indians more than eighty-one-million dollars. In exchange, the Indians ended their demand for two-thirds of Maine. They used much of the money to buy back some of their ancestral lands.


Members of the Penobscot Nation have not forgotten where they come from. Only a few still speak the Penobscot language. But children can now study the language at Indian Island Elementary School.

Traditional ceremonies also take place on the island. Visitors come to see members play drums, dance and tell stories. We leave you now with a story told by the people of this small nation within a nation.


Long ago, a group of people lived along a stream of water. Then a huge frog arrived and drank most of the water in the stream. The people began to suffer. But after awhile, a hero with great power made himself into a giant. This man pulled up a big pine tree and struck the frog with it.

The frog exploded. The water inside the frog fell into the hole created by the pine tree. It became a river. This river had a place where its waters ran over big white rocks. The people who lived there took their name from that place.

The Penobscot are that people.



Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. You can learn more from the Penobscot Web site: penobscotnation dot o-r-g. I’m Faith Lapidus.


And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.