Tours of a controversial Christopher Columbus replica ship were held Saturday and Sunday in Bucksport by the organization that invited the ship to Maine, just after its visit to Bangor was canceled in response to criticism voiced by Maine tribal leaders and others.

The Nao Santa Maria was scheduled to be in Bangor from July 15-17 for the 4-Port Loop, a project put together by several communities in conjunction with the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association to commemorate Maine’s bicentennial anniversary. But the association came under fire last week by tribal leaders, who said the Penobscot River tour disrespected tribal lands and overlooked Columbus’ history of committing atrocities against indigenous people.

The Nao Santa Maria Photo courtesy of Sailing Ships Maine

The outcry led Dick Campbell, president of the association, to announce Saturday that he was canceling the ship’s visit to Bangor. He said several people had called the association to express “discomfort” because of the ship’s association with Columbus. The Nao Santa Maria is a replica of one of the three ships the explorer sailed on to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Spain to the Americas in 1492. The ship replica, which is owned by a Spanish nonprofit, is currently docked in Bucksport.

Campbell did not respond to phone calls or text messages Sunday, but Bucksport Town Manager Sue Lessard said in a telephone interview Sunday night that Campbell authorized tours of the Nao Santa Maria on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate public demand to see the ship, as well as those people who purchased tickets in advance. Lessard said thousands of people visited the ship this weekend.

She said the ship docked in Bucksport on Friday during the rainstorm caused by Tropical Storm Elsa. Members of the Bucksport Town Council issued a docking permit as well as permits for other waterfront activities connected to the state’s 200th anniversary celebration several weeks ago, but did not realize at the time that the Columbus replica ship would be among the vessels, Lessard explained.

She said people on social media unfairly accused the town of allowing the controversial ship to remain in port, and she posted a statement on Facebook Sunday in an attempt to clarify what happened.

“The Maine Bicentennial Commission and the Penobscot Maritime Heritage organization have decided to end events scheduled that relate to the Nao Santa Maria,” she wrote. “This decision was made when the Nao Santa Maria was already located at the Bucksport public dock. PMHA has concluded their contract with the Nao Santa Maria, and due to the abrupt cancellation of events, the ship currently has no place to go but is working on an alternate plan” to leave the town.

“In permitting this holdover event from last year, the Town Council was only trying to provide a positive opportunity for residents, visitors and businesses to enjoy our waterfront and community after a tough year of isolation,” Lessard continued. “There was no intent to disrespect the Penobscots or any other Native American tribes.”

Lessard said she has been told by the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association that the vessel will remain in Bucksport on Monday and Tuesday with a scheduled departure of 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. She is not sure where the ship will go after it leaves Bucksport or if tours will be permitted on Monday and Tuesday. That is a decision that must be made by Campbell and the association.

“There has been a misunderstanding. We are not in control of the ship or ticket sales,” she said. “We didn’t start the tours on Saturday and we didn’t stop them today. It’s not our call.”

The town’s attorney told Lessard that the ship cannot be forced to leave before Wednesday, when its docking permit expires.

The state’s bicentennial commission also weighed in on the controversy.

“While the ship’s visit is not hosted by Maine200 and the bicentennial commission is not involved in the planning for this event, we regret that this ship was chosen for an event that is associated with Maine’s bicentennial, as the mistreatment of Native Americans is a devastating part of Maine’s history,” Maine200’s chairman, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said in a statement Friday on Facebook. “We are encouraging the event organizers to cancel the participation of the ship as part of their bicentennial celebration.”

In a statement issued to News Center Maine, the Penobscot Nation said it “is disappointed and disheartened that any group would use a replica of a ship used by Christopher Columbus to celebrate the heritage and statehood of Maine. While offensive in numerous ways as well as historically inaccurate, it is also deeply harmful to the Wabanaki Nations as well as the descendants of all Indigenous Nations who live in the lands and waters that our ancestors have been stewards of since time immemorial. Maine has existed for 200 years. Our people have been here for at least 12,000 years.”

In Maine, four tribes – the Penobscots, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac – are known collectively as the Wabanaki.

Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s ambassador, posted a scathing rebuke of the ship on her Facebook page. Citing hardships endured by Maine’s Native American population over the decades, she said, “This ship would be one more desecration to our sacred river.”

The 4-Port Loop is scheduled to run through July 24 with bicentennial events in communities in the lower Penobscot River basin, including Orrington and Searsport.

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