Few words in the English language are as loaded as the three-letter conjunction “but.”

As in, “I totally get how Native Americans feel about Christopher Columbus, I really do. But this is history! You can’t just erase history!”

I heard numerous variations on that theme during a visit on Tuesday to Bucksport, where the Nao Santa Maria, a replica of the flagship sailed by Columbus during his first expedition to America in 1492, sat placidly at the public dock. The tranquil setting belied the cultural winds that have swirled around the vessel since its arrival in Maine 10 days ago.

To recap: The Nao Santa Maria originally came here as part of a four-ship flotilla that was to visit four ports – Bucksport, Orrington, Bangor and Searsport – from July 9-24. Organized by the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association, the rolling event aimed to commemorate Maine’s seafaring history during the state’s pandemic-delayed bicentennial celebration.

The Nao Santa Maria had no sooner arrived at Bucksport, its first port of call, on July 8 when Maine’s Native Americans objected to its presence. Given the pivotal role the ship’s historical namesake played in the eventual slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans far and wide, the Penobscot Nation took issue with the Nao Santa Maria plying up and down a river that runs like a vein through the tribe’s ancestral territory.

For starters, as Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana noted to Maine Public last week, Columbus never sailed the Santa Maria anywhere near the Maine coast. Thus, one wonders, why was its replica even taking part in a celebration of Maine’s maritime heritage?

Beyond the geographical overreach festered a deeper insult: Columbus didn’t just discover a new people in a new land – he created a blueprint for killing and enslaving them that would persist for centuries. The tightly drawn reservations and rampant social inequities that resulted stain the story of America to this day.

Organizers quickly and apologetically pulled the plug on their “4-Port Loop” event before it even got underway. Yet in Bucksport through Tuesday and in nearby Castine through today, the Nao Santa Maria show went on.

Standing near the dock Tuesday morning as the line for tours grew in anticipation of the 10 a.m. opening, a man who said he’d come down from Bangor spoke for many when he said sending the Nao Santa Maria packing was not the answer.

“It has its negative aspects to it, but that kind of negativity should not be hidden. It should be used as a teaching tool,” he said, declining to give his name. “I am so happy that there are tours through concentration camps (in Europe). Teach it, don’t hide it.”

Therein lies the problem here. After plunking down $15 to get aboard the vessel, I found no such attempt to put the Nao Santa Maria into its proper context – a goal the remnants of the Nazi concentration camps achieve by their very existence.

In fact, throughout the relatively short self-guided tour, I found only one mention of Columbus on a dimly lit plaque: “The Santa Maria was the flagship with which Admiral Christopher Columbus carried out one of the most significant ocean crossings in history. On August 3rd, 1492, it set sail … together with the caravels ‘Pinta’ and ‘Nina’ and reached America on October 12th 1492, creating an encounter between two worlds that had been unknown to each other until that point.”

Creating an encounter? That’s how they skip over the legacy of a man who wrote in his journal on Oct. 14, 1492,  “I do not … see the necessity of fortifying the place, as the people here are simple in war-like matters as your Highnesses will see by those seven which I have or’dered to be taken and carried to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose to have them all transported to Castile, or held captive in the island. I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.”

The Nao Santa Maria posted on its Facebook page Tuesday that the Nao Victoria Foundation, which oversees the operation, is “deeply sorry” the ship’s presence in Maine “could cause sore feelings and be misinterpreted.”

It continued: “Our aim is, and always has been, to contribute spreading the knowledge of maritime history in general. When we interpret and remember the historical voyages and encounters that were lived between the two known worlds, we do so with the intent to educate and stimulate our collective progress for the future. In no way do we intend to celebrate the possible errors made at the time and disrespect any community.”

Someone needs to take away this gang’s shovel before they dig themselves all the way to China.

We’re not talking about “possible errors” made by Columbus upon his arrival in what are now the Bahamas. We’re talking about deliberate genocide.

And no one’s accusing the Nao Victoria Foundation of “celebrating” the dark side of an expedition that only recently has elbowed its way into our collective conscience. The criticism here is that the foundation – by focusing on the ship and not the guy who commanded it – ignores outright what the voyage was all about in the first place: conquest, forced religious conversion, exploitation and, above all, money.

For all the backlash the Penobscot Nation endured last week after raising its legitimate protest, it’s worth noting that our Native American neighbors are on the right side of the truth here. Monday evening, Passamaquoddy tribal members set up an educational display and film screening near the Bucksport Public Dock that attempted to do what the Nao Santa Maria doesn’t – tell the whole story.

If only we were all willing to hear it. Just beneath the Nao Victoria Foundation’s not-really-an-apology last week, a woman posted: “You have nothing to apologize for. Those who get ‘offended’ live in their own sad revisionist little world that they want normal people to be as miserable as they are. I loved both times I visited the Nao. Thank you so much for such a cool experience.”

A cool experience for one “normal” tourist perhaps. But – and there’s that word again – this maritime roadshow doesn’t come even close to reflecting how Native American history took a horrible turn after Columbus, as the singsong rhyme goes, “sailed the ocean blue …”

For $15 per adult and $5 for kids, the Nao Santa Maria doesn’t honor history. It sails right past it.

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