The Passamaquoddy Tribe has reacquired almost the entirety of a 150-acre island in Big Lake that was illegally taken from them in the mid-19th century in violation of a 1794 treaty and the Maine Constitution.

The acquisition of most of the island – known as White’s Island by Euro-American settlers since the 1850s but as Kuwesuwi Monihq, or Pine Island, by the Passamaquoddy – was facilitated by a burgeoning partnership between Maine’s tribes and the conservation community that aims to help restore key territories to Wabanaki control.

“It’s a sign of the growing relationship between the tribal community and the conservation community,” said tribal attorney Michael-Corey Francis Hinton. “This land was so important that after the Passamaquoddy fought in the American Revolution they were told that they could have hunting and fishing rights in perpetuity. This is one of the pieces of land the chief designated for that.”

The wooded island, which mostly lies within two unorganized townships near the Passamaquoddy’s Indian Township reservation in eastern Washington County, has been advertised on and off in glossy magazines and “exclusive island” real estate sites for a decade. It was most recently listed for $449,000.

The Passamaquoddy had long sought a return of the island but previously did not have either a willing seller or the means to purchase it. Last fall the chief of their Indian Township reservation, William Nicholas, saw it listed and reached out to First Light, an informal umbrella group of 65 land trusts, timber companies, philanthropies and conservation groups that have sought to partner with the Maine tribes to assist them in reacquiring lost territory.

At the time, First Light was concluding another transaction under which one of its member landholders, Roxanne Quimby’s foundation Elliotsville Plantation, gave 735 acres of forest northeast of Dover-Foxcroft back to the Penobscot Nation. Another member, the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, in effect gave the tribe the funds to purchase the island from the seller, Naton Coutinho.

“This is just the beginning,” said First Light’s facilitator, Peter Forbes. “There are several other examples in the works right now, and our commitment is to stay at this for a long time.”

The Nature Conservancy, a global land trust, has been increasing its cooperation with indigenous people around the world, including in Maine. “We have a recognized strategy of elevating the voice and choice and actions of indigenous people out of a recognition that they actually have a great track record for sustaining a healthy environment and biodiversity, and also out of an understanding of social considerations as we continue to learn about the ongoing impacts that indigenous people have experienced,” said Mark Berry, forest program director at The Nature Conservancy’s Maine chapter.

Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribe’s historic preservation officer, said the island had been designated as part of its dedicated territories under the 1794 treaty with Massachusetts, of which Maine was then a part. When Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820, the new state was constitutionally obligated to uphold the treaty, but instead the state looted the tribe’s trust funds, sold off large swaths of its land and, in 1875, passed a referendum suppressing the publication of the relevant section of the state Constitution, even though it remained in force.

In 1968 the Passamaquoddy’s attorney, Don Gellers, sued Maine for looting this trust fund, which had been worth $37,471 in 1822, or about $150 million with interest by the mid-1960s. Within days of filing the suit, he was framed for the “constructive possession” of six marijuana cigarettes and driven from the United States as part of a state-sponsored conspiracy involving the attorney general’s office and the state police. Gellers received the first posthumous pardon in Maine history in January 2020.

Pine Island was one of the territories illegally sold by the state, although exactly when this occurred is unclear. The island was renamed White’s Island in the 1850s, possibly in an effort to conceal its treaty status. “I think it could then be sold because it was no longer listed by name on the treaty documents,” Soctomah said, even while census records showed four Passamaquoddy wigwams on the island, evidence of their habitation.

A town history of nearby Grand Lake Stream published in 1920 described an early English settler, David Cass, terrorizing Pine Island’s resident Passamaquoddy around 1840. Cass had demanded they give him the cranberries they had harvested. When they refused, he set fire to the island, destroying the cranberry stock “and much other property belonging to them.”

In 1851, the island was a staging ground for the delivery of supplies to Passamaquoddy families quarantining on nearby Bear Clan Island because they had been exposed to smallpox. At least six died and were buried in unmarked graves on the other island, which the tribe acquired in 2002.

Because the island was part of the original 1794 treaty lands, it was also designated as pre-approved for federal recognition under the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, Hinton said. This all but guarantees it will fall under tribal jurisdiction, rather than that of the state, which administers unorganized territories.

A 10-acre portion on the north end of the island remains under the ownership of the Downeast Lakes Trust, a conservation group. There are no structures on the undeveloped island.

“This is an important step for the tribe,” Soctomah said of the reacquisition of the island. “It’s also a great example of a partnership where we have groups of land owners and conservation groups and private individuals that are interested in doing the right thing.”


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