Tribal rights in islands deemed not to include riparian and fishing rights in surrounding waters

in Penobscot Nation v. Mills, 2017  U.S. App. LEXIS 11704 (1st Cir. 2017), the First Circuit held (over a vigorous dissent by Judge Torruella), that the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, 25 U.S.C. §1722(i) and the Maine Implementing Act, Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 30, § 6203(8), confirmed ownership of islands to the Penobscot Nation but no rights in the surrounding waters and no rights to fish in those waters. The court focused on the wording of the state act defined the Penobscot lands to include "the islands in the Penobscot River" and that the word "in" plainly referred to the islands and not the water surrounding them. Because the court found the language to be clear and unambiguous, there was no reason to apply the Indian law canons of construction that require ambiguities to be resolved in favor of Indian nations and as those nations would have understood them. The court relied on dictionaries that define "islands" as bodies surrounded by water.

Judge Torruella dissented, finding ambiguity in the fact that the majority's interpretation would render null a provision reserving fishing rights to the tribe, as well as historical and cultural evidence of land use by the tribe which included its use of the river for fishing purposes. He also noted that even if the statute is deemed unambiguous,the entire arrangement is governed by the canon that land agreements should be understood as they tribe would have understood them and it is extremely unlikely the tribe would have understood ownership of the islands not to include riparian rights in the water, including reserved fishing rights.

See also: Tribal Property