US: Penobscots struggle, with Venezuelan help

June 13, 2008

"The Penobscot Nation is committed to continue our efforts until the fish, wildlife and plants are safe to eat, and the sacredness is restored to the river. Only then will our culture be whole again …"

These were the words of Butch Phillips, a tribal elder of the Native American Penobscot tribe — whose traditional territory covers sections of north-eastern United States and eastern Canada — in 2006.

Amid all the struggle regarding indigenous rights in the northern half of Turtle Island (the Native American term for North America), little is heard of indigenous peoples south of the Canadian border. When our vacation took us to New England, we seized the opportunity to visit the Penobscot Nation.

There are today about 3000 Penobscots, of whom about 700 live on their island in the Penobscot River, close to Bangor, Maine. This is all that is left of their ancestral territories, which once embraced most of that state.

The Penobscots maintain a small and well-organised museum, which tells something of their history. They have reprinted a decree issued in 1755 by the local representative of King George. It declares war on the "perfidious" Penobscots for unexplained reasons, orders the "killing and destroying [of] all and every of the aforesaid Indians". It promises bounties for every Penobscot scalp, including 20 pounds for scalps of children under 12 years of age.

Their problems continued after the War of Independence. The museum displays their indignant declaration of sovereignty, issued in 1957, which pointed out that they had never surrendered to settler authority and that every treaty they signed in the interests of peaceful co-existence had been ignored and violated by settler authorities.

In 1980, the Penobscots achieved an $80 million settlement from the US government in return for ceding the majority of the state of Maine.

Since then, the Penobscots have put much effort into campaigns to save their natural environment from further devastation. We viewed a video of their struggle to save the river on which they live — a river that is the heart of their culture. The once-rich river fishery has been devastated by a system of dams, which block spawning runs, and by pulp mills, which poison the water.

The Penobscots were recently successful, in alliance with other forces, in blocking a proposal for a harmful new dam. The alliance has secured an agreement for river restoration, which has, however, not been implemented. The Penobscots have demanded that the Maine state government force pulp mills to remove the poisons from their discharges into the river, pointing out that technology is readily available for such an upgrade.

The state government has refused, citing the need to "protect jobs" — meaning increasing corporate profits. As a result, fish in the river are judged unsafe for consumption.

The Penobscots have established good relations with the Venezuelan government of socialist President Hugo Chavez. The director of the Penobscot museum told us that he had met Chavez this year — he paid their island nation a visit during a US trip.

The Penobscots have been strong supporters and beneficiaries of the Venezuelan government program that distributes 100 million gallons of free heating oil to indigenous tribes and other impoverished US citizens each year. There is no other comparable program in the US.

Venezuela also had a deal with London authorities to provide discounted oil that was used to fund a special public transport discount for the city's poor. However, the Conservative Party's Boris Johnson was elected London mayor this year and cancelled the program.

Recently, a proposal was made in the US House of Representatives to officially label Venezuela as a supporter of "terrorist" organisations, which would mean, among other things, an end to the Venezuelan petroleum aid project in the US

"Why would Congress do this?" asked James Sappier, Penobscot spokesperson. "The program has provided a donation to the US poor people of almost a billion dollars." He has alerted all the 200 Native tribes involved in the program to protest. "We're worried sick that we're going to lose the program because of this kind of frivolous attitude of some congressmen."

[John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss are members of Canadian Socialist Voice, visit]

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