Water Is Life - In Maine
Update: Good News for Indian Tribes in Maine. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule that applies federal Water Quality Standards to waters in Maine, including those within Indian Country. The standards specifically apply human health criteria to waters used for the exercise of sustenance fishing under the 1982 Maine Implementing Act, and six additional standards for waters in Indian lands in Maine.
Reported in November: The Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot in Maine both rely on rivers to exercise their indigenous fishing and hunting rights. But the two rivers that flow through their lands – the St. Croix and the Penobscot – are so badly polluted that the fish are unsafe to eat. People can’t eat the fish, and people are wary of eating the animals that drink the water and eat the fish.
Rescuing polluted rivers – especially where the pollution comes from decades of dumping and abuse – is scientifically complex. The Passamaquoddy are working in partnership with U.S. and Canadian agencies and the International Joint Commission for U.S./ Canadian Boundary Waters to create and ensure a safe and effective passage for sea fish to spawning habitats along the St. Croix in Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.
First, however, someone has to stop further pollution of the river. And in the way of that goal, politics can outstrip science in offering perplexing challenges. Who “owns” the river? Who is able to regulate the use of the river? If the Passamaquoddy have jurisdiction over a portion of the river that passes through their reservation lands (a point that is in dispute with the state), who has jurisdiction over private companies upstream that continue to pollute the water that flows down through Indian lands?
Indian Island, one of several islands in the Penobscot River that comprise the Penobscot reservation, is bordered on both sides by the river. Yet, like the St. Croix, the Penobscot River is too polluted to support healthy fish and animals. The threat to indigenous fishing and hunting rights is an economic issue, but at deeper level, it is a spiritual and cultural issue. For the tribe to pass on to its youth the important values rooted in their connection to the river and the forests, they need life-supporting rivers and healthy forests. Polluting the river and destroying the forests weakens the tribe’s cultural and spiritual identity.