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200 Years Ago, Maine Negotiated Its First Treaty With Indigenous Tribes. The Same Issues Remain.

Maine State Museum

Maine's fraught relations with its Indian tribes dates all the way back to the beginning of statehood 200 years ago this year. In our latest Bicentennial conversation, historian Herb Adams describes the talks that led to the signing of the first treaty between the young Maine and the Penobscot Nation, on Aug. 17, 1820. Adams says the talks began in Portland in July of that year.

Adams: William King, the first governor himself, opened the first negotiations and said, very boldly, "Brothers" -  as he calls them, "our chiefs no longer reside at Boston. Brothers, we wish to hear what you have to say to us. And we expect that you have much to say. We have many things to say to you." The chief negotiator in return from the Penobscot side was a fascinating man named Lieutenant Governor John Neptune, and through translators, John Neptune replies very promptly. "Number one, the whites come and take all our game. The Indians take only the old animals. We let the young ones grow up to be harvested later. The whites take them all. The whites build dams, the whites build sawmills. The whites build all manner of obstructions to the river Penobscot. So no fish can get up to us. We need these things removed so that we may have fish as we always have in the past."

Gratz: So what did Maine's Native Americans receive in that first treaty?

The natives did, physically, receive an annual settlement, which from our way of looking at it is a little unusual, but it satisfied the sense of understanding of worth that both sides had. Annually, the Penobscots would be delivered by the state of Maine 500 bushels of corn, they would be given 15 barrels of good flour. They'd be given 100 yards of red blood broadcloth one year and blue the next alternated, 100 pounds of gunpowder and 400 pounds of shot - very important - 150 pounds of tobacco, six boxes of chocolate and $50 in silver every year.

What the Penobscots didn't get were any limits on white hunting, or the damming of rivers they traditionally fished in.

A lot of things are left undone and the treaty runs into trouble at once. The Penobscots placed great faith in the oral statements of the negotiation because, of course, they have an oral tradition and no written language, whereas the whites place all faith in the written treaty, which everyone signs but not everybody could read. There is the beginning of a long tragic relationship between the state and the native peoples - and that, you know, continues to this day. The very first instrument signed was a sign of what was to come. Isn't it strange to imagine that some of the issues 200 years ago are still issues today - notably, fisheries, notably, sovereign control of the waters, notably, traditional ways of life that should be protected and recognized in the form of law enforcement, and fish and game laws and such as that. Those are still matters before the public.

Historian herb Adams on the very first treaty between Maine and its Indian tribes, signed 200 years ago today. Just this month, a legislative committee advanced a bill that would represent the largest expansion of rights for the state's Wabanaki tribes in four decades. But many hurdles still remain. We have much more on the state's Bicentennial on our website.