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Maine Celebrates Its First Indigenous Peoples Day

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public
The Huntley Brook Singers perform a song during the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in Portland on Monday.

Mainers Monday celebrated the state’s first Indigenous Peoples Day, on what had been Columbus Day.

Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public
John Dennis, cultural director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, addresses a crowd prior to giving a prayer in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day in Portland on Monday.

Members of the Huntley Brook Singers performed at the Maine Historical Society in Portland as part the celebration to mark Maine’s first Indigenous Peoples Day.

Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana said the new holiday is a good step forward in addressing inequality.

“I think changes like Indigenous Peoples Day really bring us to a level of equality, and there’s a certain new level of respect,” said Dana, “And I think it sets the table for meaningful lasting change.”

Last year, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill that changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” The move was intended to better acknowledge the history of Native American tribes. In calling for the change, supporters cited Columbus’ mistreatment of native tribes.

Dana said it’s no secret that the state of Maine and the tribal nations have not always seen eye-to-eye. She said the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act has been used by lawmakers to establish policies that have been at the center of disagreements over tribal sovereignty.

Dana said there have been improvements due to a task force established to examine and diagram out how federal, state, and tribal law and jurisdictions should work.

“I think I have some hope that at least we’re having a good discussion and that there’s guidelines in place to turn over recommendations from this task force into the hands of the Legislature,” said Dana.

The celebration continued with free admission to the Maine Historical Society’s exhibition “Holding Up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art.”

Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public
Carmella Bear dances to the drummers at a celebration of Maine's first Indigenous Peoples Day in Portland.

Fiona Hopper, lead social studies teacher and Wabanaki Studies Coordinator for Portland Public Schools, was on hand for the morning celebration. Hopper has worked with the school system to better integrate Wabanaki and Native American history into school programing.  She said shifting the narrative to focus on Indigenous Peoples, rather than on European explorers, is more historically accurate.

“The history here starts with contact, which a certain kind of history starts - a history of colonization, and the brutality of that, but that’s not the actual history of this area,“ she said.

John Dennis, cultural director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, led a prayer to open the day’s celebration. He said addressing that history, and marking it with an Indigenous Peoples Day, might start to repair some of the hurt visited upon native peoples by Columbus and the colonists that came to the Americas. “I guess what I want is for them to just look at us as humans again. As people,” said Dennis.

Updated Oct. 15, 2019 at 9:32 p.m. ET.