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New initiative to help Mainers reckon with — and replace — offensive place names

File photo of Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana
Maine Public
File photo of Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana

In 1977, Maine's first Black state representative, Gerald E. Talbot, worked to pass new legislation that attempted to define offensive terms and remove them from geographic sites around the state.

But 45 years later, Rachel Talbot Ross, the current state House Speaker and a ninth generation Mainer, says her father's bill has never been reckoned with and truly enforced. And she said those offensive terms and symbols have helped perpetuate a sense that she and others who look like her don't belong in Maine, even though it's the only place she's ever known.

"It just seems to have always been present, that my people, my history, does not matter to the people of the state of Maine in any way that allows us to be made visible," she said Tuesday evening during an online discussion on Maine's offensive places names.

The event is part of an eight-part series of the new "Place Justice Initiative" hosted by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations in Maine. More than 250 people attended Tuesday's virtual event.

Last year, a state law charged the permanent commission with identifying remaining offensive place names and symbols and to accelerate their removal.

The commission counts at least 100 sites with the word, "negro" or "Indian" in their names, said Meadow Dibble, a consultant with the permanent commission.

And though some have argued they're just names or symbols, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana said they have a lasting impact.

She recalled watching a high school basketball game with her father as a child. The game, between the then-named Skowhegan Indians and the Nokomis Warriors, featured cheerleaders and fans dressed in feathers and war paint.

"Seeing my peers stealing these sacred parts of my identity, and essentially making fun of them and misusing them, it hit me in a very different way," she said.

Dana said that experience inspired her to advocate for the removal of offensive mascots in Maine schools before the state legislature. And new legislation has been passed, attempting to clarify and define offensive names and ban the use of Native American mascots in Maine schools. Showhegan has since chosen a new mascot.

But past experience has shown that legislation alone hasn't been entirely effective at removing and replacing these offensive names, or at embedding Black and Indigenous history into Maine school curriculums.

"There's no outcry. There's no outcry at all," she said. "Our history, my history, Maine's history is not being taught in a truthful manner."

But the permanent commission said there should be an outcry, and that Mainers, municipalities, historical societies and others need to hold state institutions accountable to make real change. It's why the commission has launched the Place Justice initiative, to raise awareness about offensive place names and symbols and discuss their impact on Black and Indigenous populations in Maine.

And the commission said it hopes these conversations will allow Mainers to reckon with these names and push for change.

The Place Justice initiative has additional events and screenings planned through June.