How Janet Mills is moving to repair Maine’s relationship with its native tribes
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has signed into law a bill that will change the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Maine now joins seven other states that adopted similar changes to celebrate the second Monday in October by replacing Columbus Day and honoring the native North Americans victimized during and after the Italian explorer’s expeditions.
And Mills, who has had a rocky past with Maine’s native tribes, said she is moving quickly to restore a tribal-state commission, an inter-governmental body created nearly 40 years ago, but largely neglected in recent years.
The bill-signing ceremony in the governor’s Cabinet room was short, but designed to highlight what Mills said is a long overdue historical correction.
The governor cited the “history is written by the victors,” which is often attributed to former Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he summoned his country’s response to Nazi Germany attacks during World War II. Mills said the quote may have also been true of Columbus Day, designated as a federal holiday since 1937. But she said the victors’ history omitted the plight of the native people, and that it was time to join the growing number of states and hundreds of communities that have since come to recognize it.
“I believe we are stronger and recognize where we may have erred,” Mills said. “I believe we are stronger when we seek a fuller and deeper understanding of our history. 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 who we choose to honor.”
Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day was a long-awaited reckoning for the tribal representatives who flanked the governor as she signed the bill into law.
Similar bills have failed several different times before, as individual lawmakers sought to enshrine an idea introduced in the late 1970s at a United Nations conference in Switzerland. But this proposal, sponsored by Portland Democrats Ben Collings and Rachal Talbot Ross, arguably had momentum its predecessors lacked. For starters, the latest bill and its counterparts in other states were introduced at a time of heightened awareness about the struggles of Native Americans, and those struggles, manifested in 2016 at protests over a South Dakota gas pipeline, have become increasingly embraced by Democrats and aligned activists.
And Democrats, who control the Maine Legislature, were easily persuaded by arguments made by former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana, who testified during a February public hearing that changing the holiday was not about political correctness, but simply respecting Native Americans.
“It’s still very much an attack in your spirit when you celebrate a man who really is the poster child for 500 years of genocide,” Dana said during the hearing.
The change to Indigenous Peoples Day reminded Dana of a meeting more than 20 years ago between members of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and former Gov. Angus King, who is now a U.S. senator. Dana recalled his response when King asked tribal commission members for ideas to help improve tribal relations with the state.
“The one that I added was to get rid of Columbus Day and make it a native celebration and a holiday,” he said. “I didn’t have the wording at the time, Indigenous Peoples Day, but someone else did. And here we are today.”
Dana no longer sits on the tribal commission, which was created shortly after the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement of 1980. In fact, the 13-member commission has not been full since 2013, as tensions between the state and the tribes have escalated over disputes about tribal fishing and water quality rights.
Mills, the former attorney general, was often at the center of those legal disputes, frequently drawing the ire of the state’s Native American people. But since becoming governor, Mills has attempted to repair the relationship, speaking out against the use of Native American mascots and picking Penobscot Tribal Council member Donna Loring to join her administration.
And shortly after signing the bill, Mills reiterated her goal of revitalizing the tribal commission, or MITSC.
“I’d rather communicate than litigate, put it that way. And MITSC could be a good forum for communication,” she said.
The tribal commission can discuss issues and make recommendations, yet it has no authority to change laws.
But Mills believes change can come if the commission is fully operational.
She said she has six nominations to make. Each is subject to confirmation hearings and approval by the Maine Senate.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.