Member of an American Indian people who originally inhabited the Penobscot River basin and Penobscot Bay in northeast Maine. They are allied to the Passamaquoddy, and speak an Algonquian language. Traditionally they were hunter-gatherers, living communally in the summer and dispersing for winter hunting. They joined the Abnaki confederation to protect French fur-trading interests against the Iroquois, and fought with the British in the American Revolution. Much of their traditional culture is lost, but they retain a rich folklore. Most are Catholic. They now live on a reservation in Maine, and number about 2,200 (2000). In 1978 they were awarded US$40.3 million compensation for lands appropriated during white settlement, confirmed under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Agreement (1980).
The Penobscot lived in large camps and villages along the river where they fished for salmon, shad, and alewife in the summer. In the winter they separated into small family units to hunt moose and caribou. Their chiefs had little power and acted mainly as ceremonial leaders and representatives in dealing with outsiders. Today the Penobscot maintain their own political system, consisting of two parties that take turns every two years managing community affairs. The party in power sends a non-voting representative to Maine's state legislature. In 1975 the Penobscot sued the US government for the loss of 4 million ha/10 million acres of land they claimed was illegally taken from them. They reached a negotiated settlement in 1980.
The Penobscot were first contacted by Europeans in the early 16th century and were converted to Catholicism after 1688, when a French mission was established among them. They were members of the Abnaki confederation formed to confront the Iroquois, and sided with the French against the British, who offered bounties for Penobscot scalps. In 1749 they signed a treaty with the British, on whose side they fought during the American Revolution. Unlike other members of the Abnaki confederation they did not move to Canada after the war but remained in their old territory. In 1669 they were awarded a reservation in Bangor, Maine, centred on Indian Island in the Penobscot River. In the 19th century overhunting of the region's game and the construction of dams and fisheries downstream of their reservation destroyed their traditional economy. They have since struggled to restore the river environment, which has been further affected by discharges of dioxins from an upstream paper factory.
In 1972 the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy filed a suit for federal government aid against the State of Maine, claiming that the state had misappropriated tribal lands during white settlement. They argued that treaties with the state had contravened the Nonintercourse Act of 1790, which prohibited the transfer of land from Indians to non-Indians unless approved by Congress. The US government's legal obligation to sue the State of Maine on behalf of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy was accepted in 1975, and a negotiated agreement was sought. Together the Indian communities claimed 5 million ha/12.50 million acres of land (some 60% of the state's territory) and $25 billion compensation. In 1978 the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet (later claimants) were jointly awarded an out-of-court settlement of $81.5 million; this passed into law in 1980. The Penobscot received $26.8 million for land acquisition and a further $13.5 million settlement to be held in trust by the US government. Federal recognition, received in the 1970s, was reconfirmed and limited self-government defined.