Every January, millions of people reflect on the unique history of African Americans, their ascent from slavery to freedom and their ongoing battle for equality and justice.

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, left, Gov. Janet Mills, Passamaquoddy Chief William J. Nicholas Sr. and Houlton Band of Maliseets Chief Clarissa Sabattis gather April 26 for the signing ceremony for the bill changing name of the October holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The occasion is the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, and it’s more than just a day off. It’s an opportunity for the country to look back at the work that has been done and ahead to what is still to be done.

Maine will have another opportunity like that every year on the third Monday in October, when the state marks Indigenous Peoples Day. It will be an occasion to honor the original inhabitants of the land we now know as Maine, and their survival through centuries of oppression inflicted on them by European settlers and their descendants. Like the King holiday, it’s a chance to tell a story that has not been told enough.

Last week, Gov. Mills signed legislation to create Indigenous Peoples Day, replacing Columbus Day, named for the mariner who generations of American schoolchildren were told “discovered” an already-inhabited continent in 1492.

Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic is one of the pivotal events in world history, but the story of Columbus Day shows that history can be a moving target. The date he landed on a beach in the Bahamas has not changed, but our understanding of its meaning has.

Columbus changed the world. He showed other European sailors how to reach the Americas, exploit the natural resources and, in later generations, to establish colonies here. He also took natives as slaves, and used violence to take their land and property. The word did not exist in 1492, but if someone were to do today what Columbus did back then, we would call it “genocide.”

That’s not why Columbus Day became a holiday. That was a political objective of Italian-Americans, who wanted to celebrate their contributions to the development of American society. Columbus was selected for the size of his achievement, even though he sailed under the Spanish flag, and he came from Genoa, an independent maritime republic and mercantile empire. The country we know as Italy was not established until 1871, nearly 400 years after Columbus’ famous voyage, so it’s very unlikely that Columbus would have thought of himself as an Italian.

Like the King holiday, Maine’s Indigenous Peoples Day will offer a chance to tell different stories – about the cultures that existed here for centuries before the continent was “discovered” and about what happened to the people who were living here as the Europeans moved in. It’s a painful story that has been glossed over by the history books, creating the silence that allowed the suffering of indigenous people to continue into the present day.

Mainers of all backgrounds should use this new holiday as part of an ongoing effort to understand the painful history and help guide future reconciliation between the state and the tribes residing here.

 

 

 

 


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