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SCOTUS Denies Penobscot Nation's Appeal Over River

Chief says case involves the 'core identity of the Penobscot Nation'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 18, 2022 2:31 PM CDT
SCOTUS Denies Penobscot Appeal Over Namesake River
Native Americans marching in support of several tribal sovereignty bills pass by the governor's mansion on April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.   (AP Photo/David Sharp)

The US 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 says it is 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 tells the AP.

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 US 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. The ruling came as the Maine Legislature was considering several measures that relate to tribal sovereignty. 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 says the Supreme Court's action is probably the end of the road for the appeal, but the tribe won't give up. "We’ll continue to see every avenue to remedy this," he says. (More Maine stories.)

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