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Tribe’s roots in water
Arnie Neptune rarely removes his silver ring. The snake-like figure carved in its side serves as a constant reminder of all that he values.
Neptune and his family identify with the eel. Their connection to the long, slippery snake-like fish dates back to the story of the frog monster.
As he reached over the table at his favorite diner for a packet of artificial sweetener, Neptune, a 70-year-old full-blooded Penobscot Indian, began to tell the tale.
Thousands and thousands of years ago, the Neptunes were among the first people to settle along the Penobscot River. They depended on the river for everything. Then suddenly it started to disappear. The people would wake up every morning to find the water level lower and lower.
Finally, they asked Gluskabe, a spirit who lives at the top of Mount Katahdin, to investigate. When he arrived at the base of the river, he discovered a giant frog.
Knowing his people were thirsty for the water and hungry for the fish, the spiritual hero cracked a large club over the frog’s back, releasing a heavy stream of water from its mouth. Eager to drink, several people jumped into the water. Within seconds, they all became water animals.
“A member of my family turned into an eel,” said Neptune, his voice quiet, his words slow.
The elder has shared the story of the frog monster with many tribal children. These days, however, the tale makes him think of the ongoing legal feud between two Maine Indian tribes and the state over issues related to water quality. He compares the state to the giant frog.
Caring for the waters
The Penobscot Nation, near Old Town, and two branches of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, at Pleasant Point and Indian Township in Washington County, are fighting to prevent the state from gaining control of regulating the waters on or near their reservations.
Until last month, the roughly 300 companies and municipalities that discharge wastewater into Maine’s waterways needed two sets of permits: one from the state Department of Environmental Protection and one from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Fourteen months ago, DEP asked to issue the federal permits in order the streamline the process. The EPA announced Jan. 16 that it agreed to give the state responsibility for water-discharge permitting. For now, however, the decision will not affect the 23 towns and companies that discharge wastewater near Indian lands.
DEP defends itself
Tribal leaders are urging the federal EPA to retain control of waters near their reservations because they believe the state is too lenient with polluters. In response to their claims, EPA has sent the issue to the U.S. Department of Justice for clarification.
The tribes have argued that DEP is beholden to the paper companies. But state officials insist that isn’t true.
“Their claim is patently false,” said DEP Deputy Commissioner Brooke Barnes. “The most frustrating thing is that both the tribes and DEP want the same thing. We want clean water.”
But Neptune doesn’t buy that.
“The state lets pollution and the dams hold back the Penobscot River like the frog monster did at the start of creation,” said Neptune. He moved back to Indian Island in 1985 after leaving when he was 18 to join the Air Force. “People do not realize how much damage has been done.”
A changing culture
The Penobscot Nation, one of four American Indian tribes in Maine, has been involved in environmental skirmishes with the federal and state governments over the river’s health for more than 20 years.
For decades, many of Maine’s largest rivers, including the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin, were treated like open sewers for the dumping of industrial waste and poorly treated sewage.
Much of the waste was laced with dioxin, a toxic chemical used by paper mills during the bleaching process.
In the 1980s, Maine rivers were recorded as having the second-largest level of dioxin in the country.
Around that time, life on Indian Island, the home of the Penobscot Nation, started to change.
John Bear Mitchell, a 33-year-old teacher who has lived on the island all of his life, remembers being afraid of the water as a young boy. His parents suddenly started warning him to stay away. He couldn’t go swimming. He couldn’t pick the berries from the water’s edge. He was told it was too dangerous.
Mitchell knew to listen. He could see the dirt. And smell the pollution.
Neptune also recognized the changes. Upon returning to Indian Island in 1985, he noticed that fewer children played outdoors. When he was young boy, he and the other tribal children spent all day in the river. They swam in the summer and skated in the winter.
“Today most families take advantage of TV and video games,” Neptune said. “When I was a boy, we used to have big games of ice hockey. I would play for so long that my legs would cramp up.”
Although Neptune had fun playing with the other kids, he also enjoyed being alone. He used to climb trees with the latest copy of Reader’s Digest and take long naps under a lilac tree in his front yard.
These days, Neptune still likes to get away. One of his favorite places to go is the river.
‘An entire system of life’
On a recent morning, Neptune took a walk along the water’s edge. With his jeans tucked deep into his boots, he stomped through the heavy snow with the energy of someone half his age. The closer he got to the river, the louder he spoke.
“I see things in the water that most people do not see. If you look into it, if you project your mind into the river, you can see a whole new world,” he said. “That is what this river is to my people. It is an entire system of life. And that system has to live. If it dies, we die, too.”
Neptune said the entire culture and history of the Penobscot Nation is tied to the river. Fish had been a dietary staple on the island for thousands of years until federal and state agencies issued advisories, warning people that any fish caught below the paper mills may contain traces of dioxin, which is suspected of causing cancer.
In addition, the Indians have depended on the river for transportation. They’ve planted their gardens by its edge. They’ve held traditional ceremonies at its side. And it is the home of the eagle, one of their most sacred animals.
Today the river is much cleaner than it was 20 years ago.
In the 1980s, the DEP began studying the toxins in the water. It set stricter discharge standards and it changed its methods of monitoring water quality.
As a result, paper companies have reduced their dioxin discharges by 50 percent over the last 10 years and the pollution of the rivers has lessened substantially, said Barnes.
Still, Neptune is worried.
The river is not as clean as it should be, not clean enough for him and the other tribal members to take full advantage of it.
And he fears it only will get worse if the state is given full responsibility for monitoring the pollution.
For now, Neptune said, he will continue to go to the river and pray. When alone, he’ll speak to Gluskabe.
--written by Lisa Chmelecki, Sun Journal staff writer