Mayor Nick Isgro presides over a City Council meeting in Waterville last year. Isgro plans to issue a proclamation naming Oct. 14 Columbus Day in Waterville. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel )

WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro plans to proclaim Oct. 14 “Columbus Day,” despite the state’s having passed a law in April renaming it “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” 

Isgro’s proclamation pays deference to Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas on behalf of Spain more than 500 years ago and who has become a reminder of the oppression and pain endured by the native people of the Caribbean islands. 

Isgro will read the proclamation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the Chace Community Forum in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons at 150 Main St. 

The proclamation says Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, after which European immigrants brought music, art, science, religious principles and other benefits to America, helping to shape the U.S., introduce Christian ethics and the belief that all men are created equal. 

“On Columbus Day,” the proclamation says, “we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith who President Benjamin Harrison described as a ‘pioneer of progress and enlightenment’ whose spirited voyage transformed the western hemisphere and inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions in the face of seemingly insurmountable doubts and adversity.” 

It goes on to say Italian-Americans constitute the fifth-largest ethnic group in the United States, and “their contributions to American culture, business and civic life have been of unquestionable value to our diverse shared history.” 

Isgro, who is of Italian and French descent, did not respond Monday to multiple requests for comment. 

Columbus came from Genoa, which was an independent maritime republic and mercantile empire, but he sailed under the Spanish flag. The country we know as Italy was not established until 1861 — almost 400 years after his famous 1492 voyage — so it is unlikely that Columbus thought of himself as an Italian. Italian-Americans wanted to make Columbus Day a holiday to celebrate their contributions to the development of American society. 

Columbus’ brutality is documented in not only his own journals but also those of the priest and historian Bartoleme de Las Casas, according to an article from October 1975 titled “Columbus and Genocide” in American Heritage magazine. 

On April 26, Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation to establish Indigenous Peoples Day in Maine, with Mills proclaiming, “Today, we take a step towards healing, towards inclusiveness, towards writing that fuller and deeper history.” 

Maine is one of several states, including New Mexico, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota, Oregon and Hawaii, that have changed the name of the holiday. 

Kirk Francis, tribal chief of the Penobscot Nation, said Monday in a telephone interview it was the first he had heard about the mayor’s plan to proclaim Oct. 14 “Columbus Day.” Francis called it “discouraging,” and sought to explain the Penobscot Nation view. 

“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,” he said. 

“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.” 

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador, said Monday she knows Isgro “has a history of not liking inclusivity.” 

“I know that he is kind of known for white nationalist tendencies and ideologies,” Dana said, “and I think that’s what we’re seeing here.” 

She said there are people who fear immigrants and those with different religions and backgrounds because they fear losing their perceived power. 

“It’s all about control. If they can control the holidays and symbols and language, they have power over marginalized people,” Dana said. “This is totally an act of fear, and fear is dangerous.” 

Council Chairman Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, said he grew up honoring Columbus Day. He said he does not condone brutality and thinks people should be mindful of that part of  history, but people should not try to change history. He likened the changing of the designation “Columbus Day” to tearing down monuments in the South. 

“I understand the feelings on both sides of the spectrum, but I also am a traditionalist as far as keeping things the same unless it’s overly oppressive to people,” Mayhew said. 

Councilor Meg Smith, D-Ward 3, was more strident in her reaction. 

“It’s unfortunate that our mayor continues to look for ways to grab headlines to propel his own political future,” she said. “His opinion does not represent his constituents or this city councilor. This proclamation is a black eye on the city of Waterville. I am, again, embarrassed by his choices. 

Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, said he did not see Isgro’s proclamation as an issue. 

“I think there’s more important things to worry about when it comes to doing the city’s business,” Thomas said. “It’s not something I’m going to get into.” 

Asked what he thought of the mayor’s proclamation in light of reports that Columbus inflicted extreme cruelties on the indigenous people of the Caribbean, Thomas said he thought Isgro’s intent was about his heritage, not about Columbus’ actions. 

“I understand it’s important to him because of his heritage,” he said of Isgro. “He has his own reasons, which I’m sure have nothing to do with that. It has to do with other things Christopher Columbus accomplished. 

“I’m not going to speak for the mayor on that. We need to focus on doing the city’s business, and if this is important to him, I’m not going to get into a big argument.” 

Councilor Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, said he planned to talk with Isgro, as he has questions about the proclamation, including what is behind it and why he decided to introduce it now — after the state had changed the name. 

Morris said he thinks the discovery part can be celebrated without recognizing the person — Columbus. 

“I don’t know that it’s appropriate at this point to declare something ‘Columbus Day,’ even though it’s no longer Columbus Day — it’s now ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day,’” Morris said. 

Councilor Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5, said Monday that he does not support Isgro’s proclamation. 

“I absolutely do not, but I respect his right to do so, as the mayor,” he said. 

Coelho said he is OK with people who want to celebrate Columbus Day, and he is OK with people who want to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“It’s a day off,” he said. “I think everybody should celebrate the fact that we get a day off.” 

He noted that the proclamation is a mayoral proclamation, not a council proclamation, and that Isgro, as the mayor, is “going to do what he wants to do, regardless.” 

“It’s one of those things that should just remain in his head,” he said. 

Contacted Monday for comment, Elizabeth Leonard, an emerita professor of American history at Colby College, said to insist on proclaiming Oct. 14 Columbus Day seems to “be an effort to elevate and celebrate the importance of what Columbus’ arrival in the so-called ‘New World’ did for (white) Europeans, while simultaneously dismissing as irrelevant the devastating consequences of European imperialism for indigenous peoples who had been living here for tens of thousands of years prior to Columbus’ voyage, creating culture, organizing communities, honoring nature, loving, having children, being human.” 

“Like so many of us, my white ancestors benefited enormously from the explorations of Columbus and other European adventurers in his day,” Leonard said. “But that does not mean I think we should ignore the enormous suffering they inflicted on the people whose lands they stole and whose communities and futures they destroyed. It’s time to start making amends.” 

In other matters Tuesday, councilors will consider taking a final vote to rezone 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive, a move that would allow an adult-use marijuana shop to open there. They also will consider several amendments to the city’s marijuana ordinance that would reflect higher license fee costs for such businesses than the ordinance drawn up by the Marijuana Study Committee and previously approved by the council. 

The adoption of a new fee schedule for dispatch services to several other towns also will be considered. The council also will consider approving union contracts with the Fire Department and Public Works and Parks and Recreation Department. 

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