Food Is a Timeless
Photography courtesy of the Penobscot Nation
Department of Natural Resources
The Penobscot Nation’s John Banks Explains the Connections
Understanding the human connection to natural resources is essential to protecting them. In this Q&A, John Banks, a member of the Penobscot Nation and director of its Department of Natural Resources, explains how food is a natural resource and why protecting Indigenous access to it is important. Our conversation has been edited for flow and length.
How do you describe your work?
I oversee the Penobscot Nation’s natural resource programs as it builds its land base resulting from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. Our programs include forest management, fish and wildlife management, water resource management, air quality, brownfields, fish and game law enforcement, and geographic mapping services.
These programs provide an integrated management approach that enhances cultural integrity of the Tribe by protecting, restoring, and developing its land and natural resources. Ecological restoration is a top priority so that Tribal members have access to healthy fish and wildlife for sustenance consumption.
What does sustenance consumption mean to the Tribe?
Consumption and gathering of naturally produced food sources that have sustained the [Indigenous] tribes for millennia connects the Tribe, spiritually, to our ancestors and recognizes the sacrifices they have made so we can continue to practice our inherent stewardship responsibilities today. Cultural connection to the resources is the foundation for the sustenance way of living in harmony with all of creation.
How are the Tribe's connections to natural resources woven into its cultural fabric?
The Penobscot Nation has depended on the natural resources of the Northeast woodlands since time immemorial. The rivers and streams provide transportation to gather food, medicines, and materials for shelter and to carry on commerce with neighboring Indigenous tribes. Carrying out this sustenance lifestyle for thousands of years has led to a deep appreciation of and connection to the natural world. Many of the Tribe’s ceremonies, songs, dances, and stories have connections or references to elements of nature.
Why is preserving Indigenous access to food systems so important?
Protecting access to traditional foods and their habitats provides benefits beyond the basic need for physical nourishment. For Indigenous populations, access to traditional food sources connects present-day gatherers to our ancestral past, which invokes a deep spiritual connection to sense of place. Our customs and traditions are inextricably tied to the natural resources. Nature-based foods and medicines have sustained Indigenous populations for millennia, and their protection should be prioritized within regulatory agencies at all levels of government.
How does your work protect Indigenous peoples’ access to cultural food sources?
Protection and restoration of critical fish and wildlife habitat ensures healthy populations of the species that are important sustenance resources. We perform water quality sampling and fish tissue contamination analyses (checking for mercury, dioxins, furans, PCBs, PBDEs, and PFAS) to inform the Tribal membership of the potential health risks from the consumption of contaminated fish and other aquatic food sources.
How has the Penobscot Nation's access to these foods been affected by development over time?
The Industrial Revolution brought changes to the landscape that severely impacted Tribal members’ ability to carry on a traditional sustenance way of life. Hydroelectric dams and paper mills in the Penobscot River watershed have contaminated resident fish species and nearly eliminated salmon, sturgeon, herring, shad, and other migratory fish species that once called the watershed home. Healthy, natural food sources that had sustained the Tribe since time immemorial have been replaced by more processed food diets with severe health consequences. As with other Indigenous groups, the Penobscot Nation has higher than average rates of diabetes and cancer.
What was the Penobscot Nation's role in the Penobscot River Restoration Project?
The Tribe’s sustenance fishing rights and associated stewardship responsibilities were front and center during the project negotiations. Today, the ecological well-being of the Penobscot River watershed is crucial to the Tribe’s ability to practice the traditions that have been passed down through generations. The goal is to restore the 11 species of migratory fish that had been nearly eliminated due to the many hydro dams on the river.
What lessons can we learn from reaffirming our connections to natural food sources?
Many of today’s health problems are a result of poor diet and lack of exercise, both of which can be alleviated through the practice of a sustenance lifestyle. The woods and waters of Maine provided a means of survival for the Wabanaki tribes for a long time. Taking a long-term approach to regional planning with strong environmental protections for natural resources must become more prevalent. Incorporating Indigenous perspectives into long-term planning can help ensure these gifts of creation are available for future generations to enjoy.
Colles Stowell is president of One Fish Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that brings the sustainable seafood message into classrooms (from elementary through college) and communities.