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Who are the Penobscot Indians?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Penobscot Indians are a tribe of Native Americans that originated mostly in Maine in the United States. Historically, there was a time period when the tribe also had a significant presence in Nova Scotia, Canada. They were part of a group of tribes called the Wabanaki Confederacy that used to control much of the New England area. The confederacy was primarily formed as a military alliance to fend off attacks from the Iroquois. There are several thousand Penobscot Indians left, and one of their reservations remains in Maine on Indian Island, near Old Town.

Historical Penobscot Indians traveled between different settlements seasonally. During the summer, they generally stayed near the sea, which allowed them to exploit fishing opportunities. In the winter, they would normally move inland so that they could hunt bear, deer and moose. The tribe primarily lived in tent-like structures called wigwams, which were covered in birch bark. In winter, the area they occupied was very cold, and they received a lot of snowfall, and members of the tribe often needed snowshoes to help them get around while hunting or traveling.

Along with the rest of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Penobscot Indians had many battles with the Iroquois tribes. This rivalry went back into the distant past, and it is generally considered to be one of the primary reasons the confederacy was formed in the first place. As a result of this conflict, the Penobscot Indians were allied with the French against the Iroquois and English in King William's War, which was the first major battle between the French and English involving the native tribes.

The war, in addition to several outbreaks of European disease among the tribe, contributed to the reduction of the Penobscot population during the 1600s. In the mid-1700s, the English finally defeated the French and began to move into the Penobscot territory. The chief during that time, who was named Orono, chose not to resist the settlers. Over time, the tribe was gradually confined to their island village near Old Town. Many of the Wabanaki tribes ended up retreating to Canada during this period, but the Penobscot generally chose to stay.

During the 1700s and early 1800s, the tribe experienced food shortages and other problems, primarily because European settlers were using too much of their land. The tribe made several attempts to negotiate and keep access to their hunting grounds, but they proved unsuccessful. In 1820, after Maine was officially incorporated into the US, the tribe lost much of its most valuable land, forcing tribe members to rely on traditional crafts and other means of making a living. In the 1970s, the Penobscot were among the very first tribes to set up gambling businesses, and this generally helped improve their economic situation. A few years later in the 1980s, they received a settlement from the state of Maine, which they used to buy back some important ancestral lands and provide greater financial security for tribe members.

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