Credit: George Danby

What we choose to commemorate as a holiday reflects our values. As people of conscience acknowledge a conqueror’s history has distorted the historical record, re-examining holidays and what they represent is critical to achieve the American vision of “justice for all” and a more accurate awareness of who truly settled this land.

On Oct. 9, when Bangor celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day, this city joins a growing number of communities throughout Maine and the United States honoring those people who had inhabited the land for more than 10,000 years before Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain.

Not only does Indigenous Peoples’ Day root the celebration in an accurate historical context, but it also brings clarity to our American identity as well as deepening the meaning of our patriotism and fostering a greater sense of unity. In the words of Penobscot Nation Tribal Councilor Maulian Dana Smith, who spoke before the Bangor City Council last month, Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents “what it is to be ‘American’ together. [America] is not a melting pot. It is a quilt, and no strand [is] better than the other because all are needed to make it strong.”

In essence, coming together on Indigenous Peoples’ Day promotes equal recognition, mutual respect and an increased scope of our celebration. Without diminishing Columbus’ risk-taking and his impact on history, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors the sovereignty of the first people as the land’s original inhabitants. While Columbus’ narrative may be interpreted to embody initiative, drive and individualism, qualities we associate as quintessentially American, it is mythologized, fashioned to obscure the violence, decimation and exploitation indigenous people suffered at the hands of Columbus and subsequent European explorers and colonists.

Not surprising, as one consequence, to quote Camille Beale, a member of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations and of the Midcoast Indigenous Awareness Group, even though indigenous peoples have lived throughout the land we now call America for millennia, “only a few of us know or are learning about this area’s pre-[European] settlement history.” Only some of us are aware of the extent to which this vital indigenous culture shaped our past and present.

Beale’s hope “is that celebrating a holiday renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day will contribute to a wider knowledge of our shared history, for our children, our grandchildren, and for all of us.”

Finally, Beale, like Smith, sees the potential for Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a unifying influence with wide-ranging benefits. “One thing I hear again and again through contact with indigenous people and cultures is the importance of relationship: relationship with family, friends, community as well as with land, waters and the life therein,” she told the Brunswick Town Council on Sept. 18, when it was considering a resolve to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “Hopefully it contributes to collaborative relationships that benefit this land, the waters and all of us here.”

Smith both broadens and deepens Beale’s point. “I am proud of the work we have done to transform this once painful and traumatic holiday into a day of respect and healing,” she said in response to Bangor’s unanimous passage of a proclamation recognizing the second Monday
in October of each year as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “encouraging schools, other educational institutions, businesses and other institutions to recognize and celebrate” together.

Smith’s comment alludes to the dauntless human spirit. The work required to transform pain and trauma into healing and respect is a lesson in fortitude, a necessary component in successfully overcoming institutionally-entrenched social injustice.

Success manifests in many ways, including our holidays. Examining the choices we make to set aside special days commemorating people and events reveal who and what we value. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed nationally each year on the third Monday in January, is one example of a holiday that represents progress toward achieving America’s vision of “justice for all.”

Proclaiming the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day is another.

Eileen Kleinman is an active member of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations. She lives in Camden.