When Maulian Dana was growing up on Indian Island, the second Monday in October was not treated like a holiday.

“We always went to work or went to school on that day,” Dana said. “It was kind of like a passive protest of it. But we were all very aware of what the holiday meant, in that it was celebrating a man who is the symbolic beginning of the colonization and attempted genocide of our people.”

But this year, Maine will recognize that day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time. While the federal government still recognizes Columbus Day, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill earlier this year that replaced the state holiday to recognize Native Americans instead.

For Dana, who is the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador, the change is a sign of an important shift for native people in Maine. She pointed to other bills that passed during the legislative session and, in particular, to a task force that has been discussing potential changes to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which has led to disagreements over state jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty.

“We’ve set the table with Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the ban on Indian mascots, and we’re getting to a place where we feel more respected because we’ve taken these large symbolic gestures to make Maine a safer place,” Dana said.

A growing number of states have done away with Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. They include Vermont, New Mexico, Alaska, Minnesota, Oregon, Hawaii and South Dakota. Some Maine cities, including Portland and Bangor, had previously recognized the holiday as well. The change recognizes that Christopher Columbus never actually set foot in America, and he committed atrocities against the native people in the Caribbean islands on which he did land.

Some people have resisted the change. Recently, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro announced he would proclaim Oct. 14 to be Columbus Day in opposition to the new law. He said he wanted to honor Italian-Americans and other European immigrants; Columbus was from the country that would later be known as Italy.

His pronouncement drew criticism from tribal leaders and some city councilors. Kirk Francis, tribal chief of the Penobscot Nation, told the Morning Sentinel that it was “discouraging.”

“This whole issue of turning Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples’ Day was a real recognition and acknowledgement of the state’s first peoples, and I think this is not about Indian people and Italian-Americans,” Francis said at the time. “This is about one individual that, in our mind, caused a lot of destruction when he came in terms of genocidal acts and raping and pillaging their way through Indian land.”

Many retailers have also maintained “Columbus Day” when advertising major sales. Dana said she and her daughter recently saw an ad for a local business that had not made the change. Her daughter noticed and wanted to call the business.

“I think it’s to be expected,” Dana said. “We have the change validated by the law, and we’ve shown that the lawmakers have agreed. I think allies and tribal people are very empowered to go to places and speak up and say this is what the day is called now for Maine. I think the cultural shift will happen.

“I have some patience for that,” she added. “But I am not afraid to tell people the correct name of the day.”

Wade Lola, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council, told the Kennebec Journal that he was grateful to the people that helped pushed through the legislation.

“I know it’s been a little touchy subject,” he said. “To me, it shows a little bit of respect to our tribe and to our native people of Indian Township.”

Indigenous rights activist Sherri Mitchell discusses the struggle that remains for Maine’s Native Americans on Sunday in Augusta. Mitchell was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Native American advocate Sherri Mitchell, who was born on the Penobscot reservation, spoke at two services Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta. She said her appearances were especially poignant with the pending observance of the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Maine.

In changing the name of the holiday, “we make an acknowledgment of the inaccuracies of our shared history and make a move towards righting those inaccuracies by shifting from the celebration of a man who had committed horrific genocidal acts against the indigenous peoples of the Americans and actually never stepped foot here on this continent,” Mitchell said.

The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission was among the organizations to testify in support of the holiday change.

“It’s an opportunity for folks to really focus on the actual history of the native peoples,” Managing Director Paul Thibeault said. “That’s what we hope for, that it becomes an educational event to promote greater understanding of the history of the native people within Maine and also the current cultures.”

The four federally recognized tribes in Maine are the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Collectively, they are known as the Wabanaki. The relationship between the tribes and the state has deteriorated in the 39 years since the settlement agreement, but the leaders are working with state officials and other stakeholders now to recommend changes.

“It’s a hopeful time,” Thibeault said.

Mitchell urged that people put pressure on their state legislators to support laws that help prosecute crimes against Native American women. She said Mills has yet to sign a bill that passed the Legislature that would give Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes jurisdiction over some domestic violence cases. She also advocated for speaking out against the taking of lands and rights to tribal waters by the state.

Among the events planned around the state Monday to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a gathering at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. The day will include drumming, singing and remarks by native people. Admission will be free to “Holding Up The Sky,” an exhibition of Wabanaki culture from centuries ago to the present day. Tilly Laskey, a curator at the Maine Historical Society, said the exhibition is part of the commemoration of Maine’s 200th anniversary and was developed by Wabanaki curators.

“We can’t talk about 200 years of Maine without first understanding 13,000 years of habitation in Maine,” Laskey said. “What’s really important, and I think especially for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, is to know that Wabanaki people have always been in Maine.”

Dana will speak at that event, as well as at events in Belfast and Waterville. The holiday will be a different experience than in her childhood.

“There was real empowerment in taking the day over,” she said. “If you really want to talk about the origins of the country and celebrate the country and the founding of it, why don’t we shift the concentration to something truthful?”

Staff Writer Sam Shepherd of the Kennebec Journal contributed to this report.


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