Faces of Rivers: John Banks, Penobscot Nation

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

John Banks | Photo by John Banks

For Indigenous Peoples who have lived on and cared for their lands and waters for thousands of years, rivers are a source of identity, life and community. Here, John Banks, a member of the Penobscot Nation in Maine and the tribe’s director of natural resources, speaks with us about his deep connections to the river and the Penobscot Nation’s game-changing leadership in rethinking dams.

What does the river mean to the Penobscot Nation?

Our original reservation is a large portion of the Penobscot River. We are very much a riverine-based tribe, and our reservation is over 200 islands in the Penobscot River. The archeologists tell us that we’ve inhabited this watershed for about 10,000 years.

We talk about how we are the river. It’s us. It flows in our veins. It defines who we are culturally, socially, economically, spiritually. And the river has allowed our tribe to thrive since time immemorial, as we say.

One of the purposes our reservation exists is for tribal members to be able to fish for sustenance. Sustenance fishing is central to our culture. The history books, and our oral history, talks about how important the fish runs were in the spring time. Oftentimes, at the end of a very hard winter, food supplies would get short and people would be hungry. Then spring would come and tens of thousands of fish were speared and netted right below where the reservation starts on the falls. All of the families that had been dispersed to different parts of the watershed in the winter would come together at Indian Island to harvest the bounty of native fish.

How did you get involved?

By the time I came to work for my tribe in 1980, I had already been brought up by my father and uncles and understood the importance of the river. When I became the director of the natural resources department, I immediately looked at the ecological conditions and threats to the Penobscot River watershed.

What were the major threats to the river?

Maine is very much a paper plantation. Paper mills had been established on the river and were polluting the river [with dioxins, a carcinogenic byproduct of the bleaching process]. The 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act re-affirmed the tribe’s sustenance fishing rights. Due to the pollution in the river, I found that tribal members were getting sick and dying of cancer simply by carrying out the cultural traditions of our ancestors. So we began a campaign to address the dioxins being discharged directly into our waters.

Penobscot River | Photo by Chek Wingo

Eventually, the company went belly up. Basically, we forced it to spent over $100 million to rebuild its bleach plant — and it went bankrupt.

The other big problem was the lack of native migratory fish that originally inhabited this watershed. About 12 species of fish had been eliminated due to the building of dams. We began looking into how to address the dams.

The Penobscot Nation has been a leader in rethinking dams. What are you most proud of?

When we got into this, the timing was good because a lot of the dams were up for relicensing [by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission]. The FERC licenses hydropower-producing dams for 30, 40 or 50 years. So each relicensing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make real, positive change in terms of fish passage and adequate water flows for habitat.

We eventually formed a partnership with American Rivers and several other NGOs to develop the Penobscot River Restoration Project. Together, the groups purchased three dams. We removed two of them and decommissioned the third and built a fish bypass channel around it.

The impact on fish populations has been very good — it’s been even more robust than even the fishery scientists thought. Particularly with alewives — Atlantic and blueback herring — and American shad.

Alewives spawning on the Penobscot River | Photo by Chek Wingo

Why is restoring alewives important?

Alewives are the keystone species in these northeast watersheds. Unlike salmon in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, alewives don’t perish after they come in and spawn. They come in by the millions and bring in marine nutrients and provide a food source for all the critters. Then they go back out to sea and hopefully come back to spawn again next year.

Prior to this, the state and federal agencies had just been focusing on Atlantic salmon. They would stock a bunch of hatchery smolt and fry and try to jumpstart the salmon run. But for years we were telling everybody that would listen if you want to restore salmon you have to restore the river. You have to bring the habitat back to what it was, and you have to restore the other 11 native migratory fish. They listened, finally.

How is the Penobscot River doing and what’s coming up next?

It is certainly a lot healthier these days. There are no paper mills discharging into our reservation waters. There are a couple of other dams we’ll be working on soon. There’s also always the threat of new paper companies or manufacturing facilities starting up. And we’ve been going around with the state of Maine on water quality standards on the river. We had some success last year, when the Maine state legislature established sustenance fishing as a designated use that needs to be protected under the Clean Water Act. The paper industry is challenging this.

What is your hope for the future of the Penobscot River?

My hope would be that in 50 years there would be no dams. There would be no pollution and our tribal members would be enjoying this tremendous gift that the creator has placed here with us in this place.

We talk a lot about reciprocity and a lot of tribal members believe that the river has been our main source of survival for so long. It provided everything we needed. It was our route of transportation. It allowed tribal members to get to everywhere they needed to get to gather food, shelter and medicine, to carry on commerce with neighboring tribes. So, many tribal members feel we have a duty to do what we can to improve the ecological integrity of this place that has provided for us for 10,000 years.

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