Every year for decades on the second Monday in October, Mainers celebrated a man whose story they already knew well. No further explanation of Christopher Columbus was necessary, as everyone had heard, again and again, the story of his “discovery” of America and his place in our history.

This Monday, however, Mainers statewide will for the first time wake up to Indigenous Peoples Day – and most will only have the faintest idea of what it’s all about.

In April, Gov. Mills signed into law a bill renaming Monday’s holiday, just as seven other states and more than 100 cities, including Portland and Bangor, had done previously.

The change won’t make up for all the times that the history and contributions of Native Americans have been minimized or outright ignored. But the holiday is at least an opportunity to bring those stories to the forefront, to give them the attention they deserve, and to show how they fit into the American tapestry.

The people commonly referred to as American Indians made their lives in what is now Maine for thousands of years before English and French settlers arrived.

Once ships from the so-called “Old World” arrived, however, the original inhabitants of this land were, over the course of decades, squeezed off it, then put under the thumb of the state in a system that gave Maine tribes little control over their own lives.

As Press Herald Staff Writer Colin Woodard said of the Passamaquoddy in his 2014 series “Unsettled”: “By the mid-20th century, state Indian agents controlled the rationing and distribution of food, heating fuel, medical care, and, by extension, much of tribal life. Fifty years ago Monday, Indians had no right to vote in Maine elections, nor could they serve on a local jury. When one of them was murdered, nobody was held accountable.”

Today, despite progress, the cultural contributions of Native Americans remain overlooked. The tribes, despite the presence of strong and active leadership, remain marginalized politically, and are often frustrated with the lack of attention their rights are given.

In 2015, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy pulled their tribal representatives from the Legislature in protest. Two years ago, tribal leaders called the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, the landmark agreement on tribal sovereignty, “fractured and broken” – they continue to seek changes to the 40-year-old settlement, a “failed experiment” in their eyes.

Those previous five paragraphs cover more than 400 years of history and cannot possibly do it justice. The history and culture of Maine tribes is an inextricable part of the state’s story, just as the many stories of North America’s indigenous peoples are an integral part of American history.

You simply cannot understand Maine history without understanding the history of its tribes, just as you can’t fully understand our politics and culture today without acknowledging the presence of the Mainers who trace their heritage back to well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

That’s why it’s important that Maine is now marking Indigenous Peoples Day. We need an opportunity to tell the stories so central to who we were and who we are – so that one day, we will all know them as well as we know the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.


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