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Maine Tribal Leaders Urge Passage Of Bill Changing 'Columbus Day' To 'Indigenous Peoples Day'

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana testifies in support of a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day in Augusta on Monday.

Maine lawmakers are being asked to consider what seven states and more than 130 other cities and towns have done across the country: replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Leaders of the Penobscot Nation and other supporters say the change would represent an important first step in correcting the historical record and rebuilding trust with the first inhabitants of Maine and the rest of the nation.

The idea to replace the federally recognized Columbus Day holiday with a celebration to honor native people began in the late ’70s at a United Nations conference in Switzerland. From there, it was adopted as a resolution by the state of South Dakota in 1989. A few years later, the city of Berkeley, California, became the first to formally establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ben Collings of Portland says it’s now only a matter of time before the change is universally embraced around Maine. Portland, Bangor, Orono, Belfast and Brunswick are among the cities and towns that already have.

“I greatly respect the history of the Italian Americans and their contribution, however I think we can honor their presence here without this day, which really isn’t fitting,” he says.

It isn’t fitting, supporters say, because Columbus is associated with dominance, cultural assimilation and the massacre of North America’s first inhabitants who stewarded the land for thousands of years and somehow survived epidemics brought by European settlers and destruction of their homeland. Columbus never set foot in the continental United States but he’s been honored with a federal holiday since 1937.

“It’s still very much an attack on your spirit when you celebrate a man who really is the poster child for 500 years of genocide,” says former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana.

Dana told members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee that in the hearts of native people, the idea of replacing Columbus Day with a native holiday is a big deal, not for reasons of political correctness but for moral ones.

“Let’s celebrate us and let’s begin those healings, because Maine should not be a place that celebrates the memory of genocide,” he says.

“I think we should celebrate you, but I think it should be your own celebration, not change what we already have,” says Rep. Frances Head of Bethel.

Head says she thinks Columbus Day should not be replaced. Instead, she says, a new and special holiday to honor native people should be established.

Chief Dana says his tribe already has those kind of celebrations. What’s needed, he says is something else.

“Maine has not addressed its relationship with Maine’s first people. This would be a way of doing that,” he says.

And Penobscot member June Sapiel urged the committee to educate themselves about intergenerational trauma.

“We are coming from a place of pain and suffering, and we are asking you to stand with us, like our ancestors did with your ancestors” she says.

Maine lawmakers have previously rejected several similar attempts to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But this year supporters are hoping the time is ripe for change.

Two dozen people testified in support of the bill. There was no opposition. But one committee member, Sen. Susan Deschambault, testified neither for nor against.

Deschambault says she worries that replacing Columbus Day with another state holiday would be a slight toward Italian Americans. She noted, however, that for her this represents progress, because she previously voted against the bill.