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River defenders support four Maine tribes at unique summit

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INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - Waters from Maine's rivers mingled in a symbolic display of unity as environmentalists and tribal leaders met in a first-ever summit to protect threatened waterways and support the tribes' fight with polluting paper companies.

The River Summit on the Penobscot Indian Nation's island reservation opened with delegates from around the state pouring jars of their river waters together under the blessing of spiritual leader Arnie Neptune.

"Today we fear that this sacred source of creation that once gave us life now possibly is taking life," Penobscot Gov. Barry Dana told more than 100 tribal and non-tribal participants in the day-long meeting in the Sockalexis Center.

"Mercury, dioxin and other pollutants have entered our water, our air, our fish, our wildlife, our plants, and thus, our bodies. What affect will this have on our genetic code and our future generations?"

"Our elders tell us about the old days," Gov. Richard Stevens of the Passamaquoddy Tribe's Indian township reservation added. "When the waters turned (from ice), old people would go to the water's edge and wet a small cloth. They would rub the cloth on parts of their bodies where they were ill. Then, they would throw the cloth onto the breaking ice to be taken away.

"Today, of course, we are more likely to poison ourselves than to heal ourselves using these waters."

The summit was sponsored by Maine's Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, and Maine Rivers, a statewide alliance of conservationists.

The tribes are in the middle of a struggle with the state government and a coalition of industries and municipalities over control of river pollution. The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced it will give the state authority to issue most waste-water discharge permits, but held back on deciding who will control the rivers that lave Penobscot and Passamaquoddy land. The tribes want the EPA to maintain jurisdiction.

As an offshoot of the dispute, three large paper companies have embroiled Dana and Stevens and Richard Doyle, governor of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy reservation, in a contempt of court case threatening each with a year jail term. Appeals will be heard in federal Court of Appeals in Boston Feb. 9 and in the Maine Supreme Court in Portland, Maine, Feb. 13.

In advance of the case, the Jan. 24 River Summit brought expressions of support from environmentalists around the state. Laura Rose Day, representative of the Natural Resources Council, said, "We are coming together today because clean water is a fundamental right for all people."

Keynote speaker Chellie Pingree, Democratic majority leader of the Maine State Senate for two terms, said, "Clean water and healthy natural resources are something we all often take for granted. However, their protection requires our vigilance and Maine people can be grateful to the tribes for reminding us of this."

"My family has lived and worked on Maine's rivers and lakes for generations," said Betsy Ham, Maine Rivers coordinator. "Protecting and preserving rivers is fundamental to who I am as a person."

Dana introduced a perspective of millennia to the conference opening ceremony. "Deeply embedded within the genetic code of today's Penobscots are the ancient customs and traditions of Maine's first humans," he said. "For thousands of years, my people have lived along the shores of this living, moving and sacred body of water we call the Penobscot River. In honoring our role as caretakers of this river, we pledge to uphold our duty of protecting and fighting for the continued right to ensure, for all future generations, a clean and unpolluted river."

Dana recalled, however, that he got blisters when he swam in the river as a child. In spite of some improvement, the river still contains dangerous pollutants, he said.

"By continuing to eat the fish and wildlife, by continuing to consume the plants as both food and medicine, we put at risk the very way of life we seek to preserve," he said. "Our goal is to share this vision with all of Maine's people so that through our combined efforts we will ensure clean water, fish, wildlife and plants so that all future generations may swim, eat and enjoy life the way Maine's rivers should be."

After lunch delegates met in talking circles to discuss shared values, including the freedom to gather and hunt without fear of harm to human health, the restoration of riverine species, the support of river-based cultural and spiritual traditions and the "understanding that rivers are the lifeblood of the communities that coexist with these rivers."

During closing ceremonies, Neptune blessed the water brought by the participants and divided it among them to take home.