BANGOR — The Penobscot Indian Nation has filed a lawsuit claiming it has exclusive jurisdiction over the waters of the Penobscot River surrounding its reservation.

The lawsuit contends the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act approved by Congress gives the tribe exclusive authority to regulate fishing, hunting, trapping and other taking of wildlife within the river. The suit also points to an advisory opinion in 1988 from then-Attorney General James Tierney that gave tribal members the right to “sustenance fishing” for salmon.

The complaint, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Bangor, was in response to an advisory opinion by Attorney General William Schneider that the tribe has authority over its land but cannot restrict access or regulate activities on the river, which he said is subject to state laws.

The tribe is asking the court to grant it exclusive authority over hunting, trapping and fishing in the river surrounding the tribe’s Indian Island reservation. It further seeks an injunction preventing state agents and employees from exercising any authority on those waters.

In passing the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, Congress intended for the tribe to have ownership rights within the river, the complaint reads.

The issue has been a sore point for years, dating back to 2008 when tribal wardens confronted non-tribal duck hunters on the river and told them they had to have $40 tribal licenses to hunt there. Tribal officials also have sent letters to Maine state officials claiming that anybody working on the river around Indian Island had to have tribal permits to do so.


When issuing his advisory opinion on Aug. 8, Schneider sent a letter to Penobscot Indian Nation Gov. Kirk Francis saying he had been told of several incidents in which Penobscot representatives had confronted wardens, other state employees and members of the public asserting their jurisdiction over activities on the river. Schneider wrote the opinion at the request of Conservation Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and Warden Service Col. Joel Wilkinson.

“To the extent there is disagreement, I believe it is important that the matter be resolved in an appropriate forum, and not be a source of unnecessary conflict between state and tribal wardens and others who are on the river,” Schneider wrote to Francis.

Francis did not return a call left at his office.

The tribe’s attorneys, who work for the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, did not return a call to their office. The attorney general’s office also declined to comment.

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