City of Belfast Mayor Samantha Paradis during a City Council meeting in November 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre

A week after Maine garnered national attention for becoming the first state to ban Native American school mascots, Belfast officials found themselves grappling with whether it would be OK to move one of the city’s polling places to a privately owned downtown building known as the Redmen, or Redmen’s Hall.

“I know that historically we have called this the Redmen’s Hall, but the group that leads this organization are not indigenous,” Mayor Samantha Paradis said Tuesday at the regular city council meeting. “And so I would want to be sensitive about the language that we use and have respect for our indigenous neighbors and think about a better title and name for this building.”

Councilors, who had been quickly working through the agenda until they hit item 10-H, a discussion on elections parking and accessibility, seemed initially taken aback by her words.

“Is the mayor suggesting that the city go to a private organization and ask them to change the name of their organization?” Councilor Neal Harkness asked.

“I am saying we do not need to refer to the hall as Redmen’s Hall,” the mayor responded.

The primary reason Belfast officials waded into the fray around the use of Native American nomenclature was a parking problem at the Belfast Boathouse, where residents who live in Wards 1 through 4 vote.

Those who live in Ward 5 vote at the Methodist church on Mill Lane on the east side of the city, a scenario which councilors did not seem eager to change. But the Boathouse had previously come on their radar as the site of Election Day parking and traffic problems they called very dangerous, a mess, a traffic jam and even “hellish,” Councilor Eric Sanders said Tuesday. They want to find a solution before the next presidential election year and hopefully before the November 2019 mayoral and council elections.

This week, they batted around ideas for alternative polling places, with suggestions that included City Hall, the Hutchinson Center on Route 3 and the Crosby Center. But the idea that councilors kept returning to was renting the hall on Main Street that is owned by Tarratine Tribe No. 13, the Improved Order of Red Men. The building, which used to be the home of Cottle’s Supermarket, features a large parking lot and a highly visible downtown location.

The Tarratine Tribe describes itself as America’s oldest fraternal organization and traces its origins to 1765 and the Sons of Liberty. Efforts Thursday to speak with someone from the Belfast chapter were not immediately successful.

The council’s discussion around the name of the hall briefly flared into something of a confrontation between Paradis and Harkness. He asked the mayor how she wanted to refer to the building, saying that even though he agrees that he would like the name to be changed from Redmen Hall, the city has no right to tell the organization what they can call themselves.

“You’re putting this out there,” he said to Paradis. “Do you have any suggestions as to what we do? Do we tell people, vote now on that big old building on Main Street?”

“I’m not appreciating your aggression about this topic,” the mayor shot back.

But Harkness didn’t budge.

“I’m not being aggressive,” he said. “I’m asking you to clarify your position. If you’re not open to being questioned about the things you say here, perhaps you should not say them.”

“Neal, I’m always open to questions,” the mayor retorted. “But the tone you’re using, I do not appreciate.”

Harkness had a quick response.

“I don’t care about being tone-policed, Madame Mayor,” he said. “You do not have the power to police my tone.”

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After that, the discussion became less confrontational, though not necessarily less winding. Paradis suggested that the city reach out to Maine-Wabanaki REACH, an organization that works on matters of reconciliation, advocacy, change and healing or to Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador. She would like to hear their take on what would be the most respectful way to refer to the building.

“I think that’s a fine suggestion,” Harkness said. “But we have to keep in mind what the majority of people in this town know this building as. If we don’t want to engage in voter suppression, we have to make sure people know where to vote.”

Councilors ultimately did not make a decision about moving the polling place. City Clerk Amy Flood told them that if they want to move it by the November 2019 election, the new location has to be nailed down at least 90 days beforehand.

City Manager Joe Slocum was left with dangling questions about the direction the council wanted to take.

“Are we to contact the Wabanaki [tribe] and find out if they are offended that we might have an election at a place called the Tarratine Tribe? I want to be very clear on this,” he said.

Harkness suggested the city contact Maine-Wabanaki REACH to ask them for an opinion and possible suggestions about how to deal with the situation, if it is indeed found to be problematic.

“If the mayor has interest in setting up dialogue beyond that, that’s certainly possible,” he said.

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