Native Mainers this weekend shared their plans to mark the second annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, an event they saw as an opportunity to reflect on history and help educate their neighbors about the legacy of colonization.
Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s ambassador to the wider world, sees the holiday as a way to honor and remember Maine’s original inhabitants – and also as a time to teach.
Dana plans to reflect on how the survival of her own people allowed her to preserve her identity as a Penobscot woman. To pass that knowledge on, she and other historians, activists, and organizations will hold educational events through the week meant to introduce Mainers to the state’s indigenous history.
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a great opportunity for everyone in Maine to learn about the true original inhabitants of the lands and waters, the Indigenous people that have ancestral roots here and also still exist,” Dana said in an email this past weekend. “The Wabanaki have five tribal nation communities and we also honor all of the tribes that were either killed off or displaced by the colonization of Maine.”
On Monday, Maine will celebrate the holiday for the second time since 2019, when Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation promoted by Dana that changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Several events are scheduled to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, including a free webinar on efforts by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes to gain full sovereign recognition and rights, and free screenings of films about Wabanaki people, such as the Emmy-winning “Dawnland.”
At the time the holiday was officially recognized, Mills said the name change would help foster inclusiveness and build trust with Maine’s tribal communities. It also would help correct an understanding of Maine and U.S. history that often excludes the mistreatment of indigenous people.
“Our history is by no means perfect,” Mills said. “For too long, it has been written and presented in a way that fails to acknowledge our shortcomings. Today, we take another step in healing the divisions of the past.”
Building that historical consciousness in the minds of everyday Mainers may lead them to support Native people in the present, Dana hopes.
“A great way to honor the Indigenous people past and present is to support tribal sovereignty,” she said, referring to the rights and independence of tribal nations, “and make attempts to be a good ally to us or to at least try to understand our struggles and issues as well as celebrate our triumphs with us.”
And for her own part, Dana said Indigenous Peoples’ Day would also be an opportunity for gratitude.
“I am spending the day being thankful for the continued existence of my people and that my ancestors persevered so that I can know who I am as a Penobscot woman,” she said.
April Fournier, a member of the Dine’ (Navajo) Nation running for Portland City Council, said the holiday was an opportunity to decolonize former Native lands by educating the people now living on them.
“Learn who the tribes are whose land you currently occupy,” she said last week. “What is their history? Are they still here? What issues are facing them at the local and state level, and then donate to their work with either time or money. Also, don’t keep this information to yourself. Share it, especially with your kids.”
Some of that work is taking place in Portland schools, she said, as parents, educators and community members consider how pre-K through grade 12 curricula can bring “truth, respect and honor to the story of the Wabanaki peoples of Maine.”
As for her own observance of the holiday, Fournier said she would use it as a time for reflection. The first time she made public comments in front of the Portland City Council was to support a measure changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day locally. The change passed, and later caught on across the state – and now Fournier is running to sit on the same council that drew her into public policy.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1972, at the urging of Italian Americans and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
Efforts to change the name of the holiday mounted as awareness grew of the negative impact that European colonization had on indigenous people across the globe. That includes Columbus’ original voyages – from his arrival, on Oct. 12, 1492, in the Bahamas, where he kidnapped several indigenous inhabitants, to his colonization of Hispaniola, where he and his men enslaved and brutalized countless native Taíno people.
Maine is one of 14 states and the District of Columbia that now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of, or in addition to, Columbus Day. The other states are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Belfast was the first Maine community to approve the change in 2015, followed by Bangor, Bar Harbor, Brunswick, Orono, Portland and Starks in 2017, and Gouldsboro in 2018.
These events are scheduled online to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020:
● The ACLU of Maine and the Wabanaki Alliance will host a free educational webinar at noon Monday on “The Sovereignty and the Maine Tribes: Where We Are and What Comes Next.” Go to aclumaine.org for more information and to register for a Zoom link.
● The Upstander Project will offer free online screenings from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday of “Dawnland,” a film about the formation of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and “Dear Georgiana,” a film about a Passamaquoddy elder’s journey to understand her removal from her native community at age 2 by child protective services. The event will include a live panel discussion with the filmmaker and question-and-answer period. Go to upstanderproject.org to register.
● The University of Southern Maine will host a free webinar panel discussion from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m. Tuesday on “Indigenous Peoples: Recognizing and Repairing Harms of Colonized Systems.” Panelists will include Katie Tomer, a USM alum and student adviser who has Wabanaki roots, and Rebecca Sockbeson, a member of the Penobscot Nation who is an assistant professor of education at the University of Alberta, where she teaches a graduate specialization in indigenous peoples education. Contact [email protected] for Zoom link information.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report.