The word "Penobscot" originates from a mispronunciation of their true name Penawapskewi. The word means "the people of where the white rocks extend out" and originally referred to their territory on the portion of the Penobscot River between present-day Old Town and Verona Island, Maine. The Penobscot Nation, formerly known as the Penobscot Tribe of Maine, is the federally recognized tribe of Penobscot in the United States.[3] They are part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, along with the Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Miꞌkmaq nations, all of whom historically spoke Algonquian languages. Their main settlement is now the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, located within the state of Maine along the Penobscot River. Little is known about the Penobscot before their contact with European colonizers. Indigenous peoples are thought to have inhabited Maine and surrounding areas for at least 11,000 years. They had a hunting-gathering society, with the men hunting beaver, otters, moose, bears, caribou, fish, birds, and possibly marine mammals such as seals. The women gathered and processed bird eggs, berries, nuts, and roots, all of which were found locally.

The people practiced some agriculture but not to the same extent as that of indigenous peoples in southern New England, where the climate was more temperate. Food was potentially scarce only toward the end of the winter, in February and March. For the rest of the year, the Penobscot and other Wabanaki likely had little difficulty surviving because the land and ocean waters offered much bounty, and the number of people was sustainable. The bands moved seasonally, following the patterns of game and fish.