WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro’s proclaiming Oct. 14 Columbus Day drew a slew of criticism at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, with area residents calling him out for glorifying a man they said was responsible for raping, pillaging, enslaving and murdering indigenous peoples.

One by one, area residents stood to chastise the mayor after he read aloud a proclamation declaring the Columbus Day holiday after the state Legislature in April passed a law changing the name to Indigenous Peoples Day.

Mayor Nick Isgro listens to people voice their disdain for his proclamation declaring Oct. 14 to be Columbus Day during Tuesday’s city council meeting at the Chase Forum. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

At times, language exchanges became heated between speakers and Isgro, with the mayor shutting people down and threatening to have the police chief escort people out of the room who commented from the audience without being recognized.

Kipling Mitchell, a Waterville resident and tribal member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said he was concerned that because of Isgro’s statements, many people may view the city as one that is out of touch with the rest of American society and may think twice about living in or starting a business here.

“Any entity that wants to thrive, whether that entity is public or private sector, image is a very important thing and I feel that any future proclamations in the same vein as this one will hurt Waterville in the long run,” Mitchell said.

Isgro’s proclamation praises Christopher Columbus and says “he was a skilled navigator and man of faith who President Benjamin Harrison described as a ‘pioneer of progress and enlightenment.'”

“I urge all of Waterville’s residents to celebrate this day with appropriate ceremonies and remembrances and to commemorate and honor all of those who have contributed to our diverse shared history,” Isgro said.

The proclamation says Italian-Americans constitute the country’s fifth-largest ethnic group whose contributions to American culture, business and civic life have been of unquestionable value to shared diversity. Isgro is of Italian and French descent.

But Elizabeth Leonard, an emerita professor of American history at Colby College, noted that Harrison, the president favorably cited in Isgro’s proclamation, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army’s 1890 massacre of more than 140 native people at Wounded Knee.

“He was an assimilationist — and probably would not have approved of the term ‘Italian-American’ — who strove to undermine Native American land rights,” Leonard said.

Kristen Price of Waterville makes comments Tuesday against Mayor Nick Isgro’s proclamation declaring Oct. 14 to be Columbus Day during a city council meeting at the Chase Forum. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

She said that to insist on proclaiming Oct. 14 Columbus Day seemed to be an effort to elevate and celebrate the importance of what Columbus’ arrival did for white Europeans while simultaneously dismissing as irrelevant the devastating consequences of European imperialism for indigenous peoples who had been living here tens of thousands of years prior to his voyage.

Isgro read his proclamation right after the meeting started and then Leonard raised her hand to comment, but he told her she had to wait until the end of the meeting, during the community notes item.

He said he hadn’t changed state law by his proclamation and Oct. 14 is still a federal holiday. Columbus Day, he said, started after a mass lynching in the U.S. of Italian-Americans.

“It was actually a pro-immigrant holiday,” he said.

Leonard started to say she didn’t understand why Isgro, as mayor of the city, got to make a proclamation that does not represent the thoughts of all residents. Isgro appeared agitated and said a mayor has the discretion to do so.

“Excuse me,” he said. “We are going to keep this meeting in order.”

Alan Imes, a pastor, stood to support Isgro. He said people have very thin skins.

“It is amazing that we teach tolerance so much and preach it but are extremely intolerant when views are different,” he said.

Planning Board member Cathy Weeks also came to the mayor’s defense, saying:

“This whole subject is just so way out of hand. We’ve had Columbus Day since 1937. It’s never been a problem til this year with the person in Augusta getting rid of all of our culture … just like they did in Syria when ISIS came in.”

Meg Charest stood to say she wanted to acknowledge and honor the tribes of the Wabanaki confederacy, upon whose land Waterville was built.

“I also ask that you apologize and rename Oct. 14 Indigenous Peoples Day in the city of Waterville,” Charest told Isgro. “Indigenous Peoples Day honors and remembers the culture, traditions and strength of Native Americans. Columbus Day is a malevolent erasure of a long and violent history of genocide and abuse of indigenous peoples and must not be recognized because of its role in upholding European colonialism, violence and white supremacy.”

Charest declared she would use the rest of her time to speak, and in a dramatic moment, stood in silence at the podium. When Isgro indicated her time was up, people in the back of the room declared that she still had some time and should be allowed to continue standing.

“This is a council meeting,” Isgro said, prompting a call from the back of the room: “She has three minutes.”

“Excuse me, I’m running the meeting here,” Isgro said. Someone called, “Let her finish.”

At that point, Isgro slammed the gavel.

“Anyone continuing to speak, I will ask the police chief to escort out,” he said.

Kristen Price, who often speaks at council meetings about Isgro’s social media statements, which she said are divisive and racist, said his proclamation furthers the oppression of people of color and flouts state law.

“I am embarrassed, time and time again, by the news stories that come out of Waterville,” Price said. “Thank you for putting us in the paper for nothing good.”

Hilary Koch, of Waterville, speaks Tuesday during a city council meeting at the Chase Forum. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Hilary Koch said she recognizes that it is Isgro’s right to make the proclamation, but she really questions the intent to divide, not unite.

“I think it’s perfectly clear, based on the emotions tonight, that it had an effect of dividing people,” Koch said.

Celine Nash, who identified herself as a Unity College student, made an impassioned speech, saying she was taught in middle school that Columbus was a hero, discovered the New World and opened up a land for everyone while being kind to the natives.

“But this idea was only a fantasy, a bold lie to indoctrinate children into the idea that a white man could not cause any harm,” Nash said.

Shannon Thurston told Isgro that indigenous people of Maine and the world are not asking that the influence of Europeans be negated; they are asking that people stop negating the influence and presence of remaining Native Americans. 

“The reason Europeans have had such great cultural influence is because they were allowed to have cultural influences,” Thurston said. “It’s easy to beat your chest and call yourself king of the cultural mountain when the mountain is stolen land made higher by a pile of bodies — the bodies of slaughtered native Americans that could have easily had cultural influence if their influences were allowed to survive. It’s easy to be first in line when you dispose of those standing in front of you. We need you to stop praising the engineers of genocide. We need you to stop justifying overwhelming bad with the situational good. History is not on your side. And a mouth full of expired facts, based in racism that threatens to further erase an entire race of people isn’t either.” 

In other matters, the council voted 5-1 to rezone part of 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive to allow for an adult-use marijuana shop to open there. The City Council on Sept. 17 voted 5-1 to approve the change and two votes were needed. Council Chairman Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, was the lone dissenter, saying people in his ward where the pot store would open do not want it there. The property is adjacent to the on-ramps for Interstate 95.

The council also voted to approve amendments to the city’s marijuana ordinance that raises the licensing fees to marijuana businesses.

Also approved Tuesday: a new fee schedule for area towns that use Waterville’s dispatch services; acceptance of two Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters grants; union agreements with the fire department, as well as public works and parks and recreation departments; a contract to repair the fire station roof; and formation of a council committee that will seek to meet with nonprofit organizations and institutions to see if they will pay the city money in lieu of taxes. The law states nonprofits do not have to pay taxes. Councilors Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5, Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, and Phil Bofia, R-Ward 2, will serve on the committee.

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