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Passamaquoddy tribe regains control of island in Maine after 150 years

The Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine regained control of Pine Island after it was stolen more than 150 years ago.
The Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine regained control of Pine Island after it was stolen more than 150 years ago.courtesy of Sunlight Media Collective

Nearly all of Maine’s Pine Island, also known as White’s Island, was repossessed by the Passamaquoddy tribe in March after it came up for sale, effectively ending the 150-year private ownership of the island.

The Passamaquoddy tribe lost the island, located in southeastern Maine’s Big Lake after Maine split off from Massachusetts.

The island had been given to the tribe under a treaty signed with the state of Massachusetts, which then included Maine, following the Revolutionary War in 1794.

The tribe’s attorney, Corey Hinton, said the treaty was signed to recognize the contributions of the Passamaquoddy during the war.

“The tribe negotiated the treaty after stepping up and serving in the American Revolution,” he said. He said the tribe’s contributions to the Revolution included the Battle of Machias, “where Passamaquoddy warriors literally took a British schooner and gave it over to the Americans to protect what’s now Machias and the northern border.”

The treaty, a copy of which can be found on the tribe’s website, states that “the Commonwealth aforesaid, do hereby assign and set off to the aforesaid Indians ... Pine Island lying to the westward of said Nemcass Point, containing one hundred and fifty acres, more or less.”

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But Maine split off from Massachusetts and became its own state in 1820, and the treaty “really wasn’t followed very clearly,” with the land falling into the hands of timber and logging companies, said Passamaquoddy Historic Preservation Officer Donald Soctomah.

Soctomah said that at some point, the name of the island was changed to White’s Island. And that name “wasn’t listed in the treaty as never to be sold. I guess that made it OK for them to do it.”

“It was dispossession by changing a name,” he continued.

The island’s most recent owner listed it last summer on privateislandsonline.com, and the Passamaquoddy tribe worked to regain ownership with First Light, a collective of 50 organizations that serves as a “bridge between conservation organizations and ... communities who seek to expand” Native American access to land in Maine. The sale was first reported by the Portland Press Herald.

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Indian Township Chief William Nicholas said he noticed the island was up for sale in July when he saw a listing posted on the wall of a store. From there, he reached out to First Light.

First Light then reached out to its member organizations and identified The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation organization, as the group that had “the ability and the money to assist in this case,” said Peter Forbes, director of First Light.

The conservancy then led the purchase process, negotiating with the island’s seller, Natan Coutinho, “on behalf of the broader conservation community and the tribe,” said Nature Conservancy’s forest program director, Mark Berry. Coutinho had owned the island for 35 years prior to the sale, according to Hinton.

The conservancy gave the tribe a grant equal to the purchase price of the island, essentially providing them the funding to complete the purchase.

Nichols said reacquiring Pine Island was the tribe’s “number one target” when they were asked by First Light if there were any areas of land they were interested in.

Berry said the re-acquisition of Pine Island became an important project for the conservancy because of its importance to the tribe.

“In the broader context of many injustices that the Passamaquoddy tribe ... [has] experienced for a very long time, this was a very particular one,” he said. “[It’s] a property that has a lot of cultural significance that is adjacent to their community and it was a priority for them to return.”

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The listing describes the island as “offering 140+ acres with shoreline of approximately 12,430+ feet of water frontage in an area steeped with history for its long acclaimed sporting traditions” and having “timber assets of virgin timber and veneer oak.”

The sale included 143 acres of the 150-plus acre island. The remaining portion of the island is owned by Downeast Lakes Trust, according to the Press Herald. According to their website, Downeast Lakes Trust is a nonprofit organization that “contributes to the long-term economic and environmental well-being of the Downeast Lakes region through the conservation and exemplary management of its forests and waters.”

Soctomah said for years the island has been used mainly for timber harvesting.

“The logging industry would go in there and harvest the trees,” he said. “It’s only 150 acres so they’d cut that within a matter of months and trees don’t grow back for a commercial size for probably another 100 years.” He also said he thought the land had also been used as a camping area.

Hinton, the tribe’s attorney, described the history of the island’s ownership as “foggy.”

“What I do know is that prior to Natan Coutinho, the landowners, for the last 150 years, had been the timber companies and logging companies and so those were the primary owners of the land,” he said.

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Pine Island is of particular importance to the Passamaquoddy because it houses the remains of many Passamaquoddy ancestors and serves as an “accessing place for spirituality,” Soctomah said.

“This is one of the important islands where there was a history of smallpox. This was one of the staging areas where people would get sick and then be buried on the next island. So we have ancestors that are buried from smallpox within that area,” he said. “It also allows us to go to this area and take our children to teach them about the resources around the island, teach them about living in harmony and stewardship.”

Now, with the island finally returned to Passamaquoddy possession, Soctomah said the tribe plans to use it for fishing and camping, as well as for ceremonies. Ultimately, he believes the tribe will be better caretakers of the island than anyone else.

“We do a lot of fishing here, and it’s a place where the community can go now to fish around the island together ... to maybe camp out there, maybe to have some ceremonies there and not be chased off or worried about saying we’re trespassing,” he said. “The spiritual connection of this is part of the native religion. [It] is being stewards of the land, and we feel we can take care of parceled lands that were important to our ancestors better than anybody else.”

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Nicholas, who has been chief for 11 years, said it was “very pleasing” to know that the reacquisition of the island, which had been a priority for the tribe for many years, was finally completed during his tenure.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I know that something significant, hugely [significant] is back to our people and that sits good with me. Whether I’m here in a year or not, it doesn’t matter; the idea is that the next generation we were looking for that next piece that belonged to us and be able to keep adding back to our reservation.”



Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.