- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - A federal judge delivered a bitter defeat Wednesday to the Penobscot Indian Nation in its fight with Maine over ownership and regulation of the tribe’s namesake river.

The tribe sued the state in federal court, claiming the Penobscot River is part of its reservation. Tribal Chief Kirk Francis said previously that the tribe’s river jurisdiction is “bank to bank.”

But U.S. District Judge George Singal ruled that the reservation includes the islands of the river’s main stem but not the waters. He said the tribe retains the right to fish for sustenance on the entire main stem, which compromises a 60-mile stretch of river.

The Penobscots sued in 2012 after then-Attorney General William Schneider issued an opinion that the tribe’s territory was limited to islands. Francis said Wednesday that tribal leaders were still evaluating what their next step will be after the lawsuit, which he said was about protecting tribal authority over its ancestral river.

“It had everything to do with state government not wanting to acknowledge a cultural practice and cultural identity to its first peoples within the Penobscot River,” he said.

State regulators argued during the court case that a win by the tribe would create “a two-tiered system” on the Penobscot that would be a detriment to the general public. State officials issued a statement that said the ruling shows the river is “held in trust for the use and benefit” of all.

Attorney General Janet Mills said she viewed the ruling as a “compromise” more than a victory for the state.

“It fully acknowledges and respects the tribal rights to individual sustenance fishing, which is good for the tribe. It also respects the state’s right to regulate natural resources and other activities along Maine’s largest navigable waterway,” she said.

The tribe could choose to appeal the decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, but Francis said it has not decided if it will do that.

Wayne Mitchell, tribal representative to the Maine Legislature, said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome, saying the judge didn’t deliver an objective decision. He said the state has been slowly picking apart the land claims settlement, eroding the tribe’s rights.

“We’re not going to stop caring for that river. That river is our life’s blood. That river is who we are as a people. That river is our culture, spirit and lifeline,” he said.

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Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland contributed to this story.

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