The state on Monday celebrates its second Indigenous Peoples’ Day, an opportunity each October to honor the original inhabitants of the land we now know as Maine, and acknowledge the contributions they have made, and the centuries of oppression they have endured.

This year, not only do we have a chance to reflect on that oppression and how it relates to the history the United States, we also can see clearly how it manifests today.

Gov. Janet Mills last spring signed the bill changing the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as has been done in other states.

The change mirrors the change in understanding of the significance of Christopher Columbus’ journey in 1492. After years of celebrating Columbus as the hero explorer, we are telling a different story, one that doesn’t ignore the history and culture of the people who were already here, and doesn’t gloss over the actions of Columbus and those that came after.

“I believe we are stronger when we seek a fuller and deeper understanding of our history,” Mills said when signing the bill. “I believe we are stronger when we lift up the voices of those who have been harmed and marginalized in the past, because there is power in a name and in who we choose to honor.”

The harm and marginalization Mills mentioned is not only a part of the past. That much is clear in many facets of society — and it is central to any analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic.


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indians and Alaska Natives are more than three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to test positive for the novel coronavirus. They are also among the highest-risk groups for severe outcomes once they have it.

There’s nothing in the biology of those groups that makes them more susceptible to serious bouts of COVID-19. Instead, it is years — centuries — of discrimination and neglect that have made them vulnerable.

Members of Native communities disproportionately get COVID-19 because they disproportionately work in the kind of low-wage jobs — hospitality, health care, food service — where exposure to the virus is more likely.

They also often use public transportation to get to those jobs, and live tightly packed in multigenerational households, places where the virus can easily pass from one person to another.

At home, American Indians are more likely to lack clean water, electricity and phone access. They often live in places without access to health food, which leads to chronic disease and obesity, two risk factors for COVID-19.

The communities they are in often lack health care options, and a history of conflict and betrayal has led to a pervasive distrust of public health officials.

Most of the poor circumstances facing Native communities are the result of poverty, which itself is the result of policies of neglect and underinvestment, in many cases driven by racism against Native peoples.

The change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day allows us an opportunity to look through history in a different way.

But it’s not just history that’s the problem. The marginalization of American Indians is an awful part of our past — but it is also very much a part of our present.

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