Penobscot Indians in Maine See New Hope for Economic Future

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember.

In 2003 we did a program on the Penobscot Indians in Maine.  Today we revisit the tribe to report on some new possibilities for their economic future.

The Penobscot Indian Nation is among hundreds of Native American tribes recognized by the federal government.  These tribes have treaties with the government.  Those treaties establish special rights for America's remaining Indians as nations within a nation.

The Penobscot Nation has about 3,000 members.  Five hundred or so live on Indian Island in the Penobscot River in Maine.  Most others live in different parts of that small state in the Northeast.

Cross the bridge from the mainland to Indian Island, and you enter the heart of the Penobscot Indian Nation.  Homes stand along with trees of all kinds.  The island is not far from the Great North Woods.

During the warmer months, Indian Island is very green.  In winter, there is snow.  Temperatures can drop far below freezing.

Many years ago, the Penobscot Indians began to lose their traditional ways to support themselves.  Dams went up along the Penobscot River where they fished.  As manufacturing arrived, some fish and animals along the river disappeared.  Many of the Indians could find work only in low-paying industries.  Others could not find jobs at all.

Poverty has been a common problem for years for American Indian tribes.  Now, many have found a way to earn money and reduce their dependence on federal aid.  They operate casinos on, and in some cases off, tribal lands.  These operations collected eighteen-and-a-half thousand million dollars last year.

That is the estimate of the National Indian Gaming Association.  It was a 10% increase from the year before.  The group says Indian casinos have created more than half a million jobs, three out of four held by non-Indians.

But in 2003, voters in Maine rejected a proposed casino that the Penobscot Nation and another tribe wanted to operate.  That casino would have been off what is officially recognized as tribal land.


The Penobscot Indians have tried other ways to earn money.  One idea has been to sell traditional Indian canoes made by hand.  But a tribal official says each small boat takes several people 400 hours.

Now, the Penobscot may get more chances for factory work.  The Maine Technology Institute has awarded $200,000 to the Penobscot and four other tribes in the state.

An agreement among state officials, the tribes and a Maine manufacturing group made this award possible.  The director of the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership says the Defense Department might provide the Indians with factory work.

And there are other economic hopes.  The Penobscot may open a non-traditional kind of drug store to sell medicines imported from Canada.  Maine is on the border with Canada.  Medicines, even American-made drugs, often cost far less in Canada than in the United States.

The Penobscot would order prescription drugs from Canada under a plan announced by Maine Governor John Baldacci.  So far, drug safety officials in the United States government have rejected similar plans by other states.  But some states and cities are not honoring the government's wishes.  They are suggesting that their citizens buy medicines over the Internet from Canada.

Technically, it is illegal for Americans to go to Canada to bring back medicine.  Yet many older people do just that.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and senators from other states have proposed a measure in Congress.  It would permit the purchase of medicines from Canada and other nations.

The United States government has said it could not guarantee the safety and effectiveness of imported drugs.  But the drugs would be inspected under this proposed legislation.

The proposed mail-order business in Maine is part of an effort by that state to reduce the cost of prescription medicines.  Maine says it will campaign to get poor people to use the service once the Penobscot store is ready.

The poor receive government help with medical costs.  The state health department says the plan, if successful, could save millions of dollars during the next two years.

The Penobscot would sell the medicines to individuals and drug stores in Maine.  Under the governor's plan, those stores would sell the drugs at reduced prices.  Drug stores argue that this plan would rob them of profits.

The Penobscot would operate the store on Indian Island.  An old storage building is being improved for this purpose.  The nearby community of Old Town, Maine, will ask the state for $400,000 for the restoration.

Penobscot Chief Jim Sappier says the tribe will not make a lot of money.  But he says the plan will create jobs.  Forty Penobscot could be working in the drug store within a year.

The possibility of a new industry is not the only good news.  There is a plan to re-connect the Penobscot River with the Atlantic Ocean.  This connection had always provided the Indians with excellent fishing and hunting.  Then came development and manufacturing.

Last June the Penobscot River Restoration Project received almost $1,000,000 in federal money.  The goal is to improve more than 800 kilometers of river and the area into which it drains.  Removing dams will let Atlantic salmon back into the river along with ten other kinds of fish.


For now, members of the Penobscot Indian Nation go on with their lives much as usual.  Children go to the elementary school on Indian Island.  Young people attend events at the Boys and Girls Club.  Not long ago, some local volunteers collected more than $3.000 for the club.  To raise the money, they jumped into a pool of water in temperatures of minus 21 degrees Celsius.

If you visit Indian Island, one of the first buildings you see is the Penobscot Nation Museum.

As you step through the door, you feel as though you have entered the past.  A world of traditional culture surrounds you.  You pass walking sticks and ceremonial 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 baskets made of sweet grass and from trees that grow on the Penobscot land.  There are drums and jewelry -- necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings.  And there are moccasin shoes made of animal skin and trimmed with beads.  The objects in the museum describe a way of life that began thousands of years before European explorers arrived.

Much of the Penobscot homeland once extended north to what is now Canada.  Today many Penobscot Indians live in the same area where their ancestors lived.

In earlier spring times, the Penobscot 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.

Members of Indian nations are United States citizens.  They have most of the same duties and responsibilities as other Americans.  But they also make rules for themselves.

A tribal council governs the Penobscot reservation and provides local services.  A chief, called a sagama, heads this group.

The word Penobscot is usually defined in English as "a rocky place."  There is a traditional story that the people tell about their creation.

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

The frog exploded.  The water inside fell into the hole left by the pine tree.  It became a river.  This river had a place where the water ran over big white rocks.  The people took their name from that place.  They were the Penobscot Nation.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver.  Internet users can learn more about the Penobscot at  I'm Steve Ember.  And I'm Faith Lapidus.