The search is still on for a new Belfast polling place, after city officials announced during Tuesday night’s regular council meeting that owners of the Tarratine Tribe No. 13’s Redmen, or Redmen’s Hall, have declined to make it available for that purpose after all.
But that didn’t keep Belfast City Councilors and Mayor Samantha Paradis from talking about the private group’s name for the second meeting in a row.
Two weeks ago, Belfast city councilors jumped into the controversy over Native American names at a meeting when they discussed relocating a polling place to the hall, which is owned by the Tarratine Tribe, the Improved Order of Red Men. The group describes itself as America’s oldest fraternal organization, tracing its origins to 1765, and which is known locally for charitable works. But the group’s own website claims that it wants to perpetuate the “ beautiful legends and traditions of a once vanishing race,” and it limited membership to white people until the 1970s, according to an expert on fraternal organizations.
Mayor Samantha Paradis said at the May 21 meeting that she did not believe the building’s name was respectful to Native Americans and that she wanted the city to reach out to Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador.
This week, she read aloud Dana’s response to the city.
“This is a group of non-Indigenous people operating under the guise of protecting and promoting a lost culture when we are not lost and we are still here,” the tribal ambassador wrote in part. “They are also not actually affiliated with or working toward the benefit of any Indigenous Nation. They are engaging in theft of our identity to pursue their desired goals, none of which are aligned with Indigenous rights in the past or present … Not only are they not part of any tribe, they have chosen to perpetuate racism and dishonor with their name.”
Efforts Wednesday to reach a member of the local Tarratine Tribe were not immediately successful.
Although councilors said that they appreciated Dana’s letter, calling it thoughtful and important, it seemed clear from the discussion that followed the mayor’s reading it aloud that some felt that the use of the word “racism” went too far.
“I know many of them personally,” Councilor Mike Hurley said of the members of Tarratine Tribe No. 13. “They’re good people who are doing good work in Belfast, providing a lot of services. Whatever their name might be, they aren’t racist.”
Councilor Neal Harkness said that if even a handful of people in the community felt uncomfortable about a polling place for any reason, it would take that place off the table for him. However, he also had concerns about the way the conversation about the name had happened.
“You don’t fight racism by accusing people of being racist,” he said. “All it does is harden their positions.”
Councilor Mary Mortier said the sudden way that the city found itself enmeshed in the controversy over the name created “a lot of unneeded hurt” in the community.
“I am happy we had the discussion. I would hope also in the future that they would be brought up in a more thoughtful way,” she said. “I think that in trying to present new thinking, new thoughts, new facts to the population, there is a better success of changing feelings if the subject is broached differently.”
But Paradis was undeterred, making no promises she would try to do things differently in the future, although she did say that she heard the councilors’ thoughts and concerns.
“Anti-racism work is uncomfortable, and requires that white people acknowledge privilege,” she said, adding that the opportunities to do this sort of work are not always “gift-wrapped” but rather happen organically. “I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think that the people who do the good work can be recognized for the good work” but still hear that a name like Redmen’s Hall is a problem.
Beyond the issue of the name of the hall, most councilors said they still must find a polling place to replace the Belfast Boathouse, where most residents cast their ballots but which has a perceived serious parking and traffic problem during elections.
Councilor Paul Dean wondered if there was a way to change the traffic patterns during elections so that it would be safe for people to continue to use the Boathouse, but others said they think a new location must be found.
The Troy Howard Middle School on Route 52 was mentioned, but officials thought it was located too far away from downtown. Councilors asked city staff to find out more about the Crosby Center on Church Street to see if that would be a good solution to the polling place problem.
Related: Belfast city council meeting gets heated over Native American names