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For other uses, see Penobscot (disambiguation).
Penobscot tribal nation
Seal of the Penobscot Tribe of Maine
Total population
2,278 enrolled members[1]
Regions with significant populations
Canada (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec), United States (Maine)
English, Eastern Abenaki[2]
Related ethnic groups
other Algonquian peoples

The Penobscot (Panawahpskek) are a Northeastern American Indian tribe in Maine and First Nations band in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. The Penobscot Nation, formerly known as the Penobscot Tribe of Maine, is the federally recognized tribe of Penobscot people.[3] They are part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, along with the Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi'kmaq nations. Their main settlement is now Penobscot Indian Island Reservation.


The word "Penobscot" originates from a mispronunciation of their name "Penawapskewi". The word means "rocky part" or "descending ledges" and originally referred to the portion of the Penobscot River between Old Town and Bangor.


The Penobscot Nation is headquartered in Indian Island, Maine. The tribal chief is Kirk Francis.[3] The vice-chief is Bill Thompson.



Little is known about the Penobscot people pre-contact. Native peoples are thought to have inhabited Maine and surrounding areas for at least 11,000 years.[4] They subsisted on beavers, otters, moose, bears, caribou, fish, seafood (clams, mussels, fish), birds, bird eggs, berries, nuts, and possibly marine mammals like seals, all which were found throughout their native lands.[5] Furthermore, agriculture was practiced but not to the same extent as that of indigenous peoples in southern New England.[6] Food was potentially scarce only toward the end of the winter, in March and February. However, for the rest of the year, Penobscots as well as other Wabanakis probably had little difficulty feeding themselves because the land offered much, and the number of people taking from the land was too small to deplete the land's resources.[7] Furthermore, they moved seasonally depending on where the most bountiful food would be.

Contact and colonization[edit]

Portrait of Sarah Molasses, daughter of John Neptune and Molly Molasses, collection of Peabody Museum (Harvard)

Contact with Europeans was not uncommon during the 16th century because the fur trade was lucrative and the Penobscots were willing to trade pelts for European goods like metal axes, guns, and copper or iron cookware. However, the abundance that had existed in Penobscot territory quickly disappeared as demand for the resources in the Penobscot homelands rose. This trade also brought alcohol to Penobscot communities for the first time. The presence of alcohol brought alcoholism, which Europeans frequently tried to exploit in dealings and trade. The Europeans also brought foreign diseases to which the Penobscots had no defenses. The population was also depleted during this time because of ongoing battles between the Wabanaki Federation and the Mohawk nation. This catastrophic population depletion may have also led to Christian conversion (amongst other factors) because the European priests who had not suffered from the pandemics explained that the Penobscot ancestors had died because they did not believe in Jesus Christ.[7]

The beginning of the 17th century saw the first Europeans who lived year-round in Wabanaki territory.[7] At this time, there were probably about 10,000 Penobscots (a number which fell to below 500 in the early 19th century).[8] As contact became more permanent, after about 1675, conflicts arose. There were both French and English settlers in the Penobscots' homelands.

The Penobscots sided with the French during the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century after the English refusal to respect the Penobscots' intended neutrality. This refusal is evidenced by the Spencer Phipps Proclamation of 1755, which put a bounty on the scalps of all Penobscots. Also, the French posed a lesser threat to the Penobscots' land and way of life in that their population was significantly smaller and intermarriages were accepted.[7]

After the Battle of Quebec in 1759, the Penobscots were without their European ally and were left in a weakened position. During the American Revolution, the Penobscots sided with the Patriots and played an important role in defending British offensives from Canada. However, the American government did not reciprocate, and the power dynamics that had existed before and during the war persisted.[7]

In the following centuries, the Penobscots attempted to make treaties in order to hold on to some form of land, but, because they had no way to enforce the treaties with Massachusetts and then with Maine, Americans kept encroaching on their lands. From about 1800 onward, the Penobscots lived on reservations, specifically Indian Island. The Maine state government appointed a Tribal Agent to oversee the tribe. The government believed that they were helping the Penobscots, as stated in 1824 by the highest court in Maine that "…imbecility on their parts, and the dictates of humanity on ours, have necessarily prescribed to them their subjection to our paternal control." This sentiment of "imbecility" set up a power dynamic in which the government treated the Penobscots as wards of the state and decided how their affairs would be taken care of. This perceived charity from the government was actually the Penobscots' money from land treaties and trusts, which the state had control over and used as it saw fit.[7]

Land claims[edit]

In 1790, the young government enacted the Nonintercourse Act, which stated that the transfer of reservation lands to non-tribal members had to be approved by the United States Congress. Between the years of 1794 and 1833, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddy tribes ceded the majority of their lands to Massachusetts (then to Maine after it became a state in 1820) through treaties that had not been approved by the Federal government. They were left only the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation. In the 1970s, the Penobscot nation sued, calling for some sort of compensation in the form of land, money, and autonomy for the violation of this Act. The disputed land accounted for 60% of all of the land in Maine, and 35,000 people (the vast majority of whom were not tribal members) lived in the disputed territory. The settlement, reached in 1980, resulted in an 81.5-million-dollar settlement that could be used to acquire more land, some of which could be held in trust by the federal government and the rest of which could be used to purchase land in the normal manner. The act also established the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission whose function was to oversee the effectiveness of the Act and to intervene in certain areas such as fishing rights, etc. in order to settle disputes between the state and the Penobscot or Passamaquoddy.[9]


Penobscot people historically spoke a dialect of Eastern Abenaki, an Algonquian language. It is very similar to the languages of the other members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Currently, there are no fluent speakers and the last Penobscot speaker of Eastern Abenaki died in the 1990s.[2] There is a dictionary, and the elementary school and the Boys and Girls Club on Indian Island are making an effort to reintroduce the language by teaching it to the children.[10] The Penobscot language uses a modified Roman alphabet with distinct characters used for making sounds that do not exist in the Roman alphabet.[11]

Visual art[edit]


The Penobscots traditionally made baskets out of sweet grass, brown ash, and birch bark. These materials grow in wetlands throughout Maine. However, the species are threatened due to habitat destruction and the emerald ash borer, an insect that threatens to destroy all ash trees in Maine, much as it already has devastated ash forests in the Midwest. Originally, the baskets were made for practical use, but after European contact, the Penobscots began making "fancy baskets", which they could trade with the Europeans. Basket-making is a skill that is passed down in families traditionally and has recently made a significant comeback in the tribes.[12]

Birchbark canoes[edit]

The birch bark canoe was at one time an important mode of transportation for all nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy. The shape of the canoe varies slightly between each nation. The canoe is made of one piece of bark from a white birch tree, which, if done correctly, can be removed without killing the tree.[13]


Penobscot tradition describes Gluskabe as the creator of man and women. Legends which explained phenomena such as the wind and the growing of corn were passed down orally from generation to generation. With the arrival of the French colonists, many Penobscot people converted to Christianity. Now there are a wide range of religions practiced on Indian island.[7]


In 1973 Penobscot High Stakes Bingo opened on Indian Island. This was the first commercial gambling operation on a reservation in the United States. Bingo is open one weekend every six weeks. The Penobscot tribe has pushed for legislation allowing them to add slot machines to their bingo hall, but has not been granted it thus far.[14]

Notable Penobscots[edit]


Maps showing the approximate locations of areas occupied by members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (from north to south):

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Penobscot Indian Nation". US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  2. ^ a b "Abnaki, Eastern". Ethnologue. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  3. ^ a b "Tribal Directory". National Congress of American Indians. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  4. ^ The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes. American Friends Service Committee, 1989.
  5. ^ Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes
  6. ^ James Francis. "Burnt Harvest: Penobscot People and Fire", Maine History 44, 1 (2008) 4-18.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Wabanakies of Maine and the Maritimes
  8. ^ History. Penobscot Nation.
  9. ^ Diana Scully. "Maine Indian Claims Settlement: Concepts, Contexts, and Perspectives". 14 February 1995.
  10. ^ "Penobscot Nation Boys & Girls Club". Retrieved 14 January 2011. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ [2]
  13. ^ [3]
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ [4]
  17. ^ See McBride, Bunny. 1995. Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

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