A mural representing symbols of Micmac culture is painted along a hallway of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs administrative offices in Presque Isle. The Micmacs are among the four Wabanaki tribes who will celebrate the first ever Indigenous Peoples Day in Maine on Monday. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Presque Isle Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When John Dennis heard the news in April that Gov. Janet Mills had signed a bill to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples Day in Maine instead of the federal holiday Columbus Day, his first thought was, “It’s about time.”

“I don’t think a lot of people truly understand what Columbus Day means,” Dennis, the cultural director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, said Friday.

On Monday, Maine’s Wabanaki tribes, which include the Micmacs, Houlton Band of Maliseets, Passamaquoddy tribe and Penobscot tribe, celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day.

Maine has joined Wisconsin, South Dakota, Alaska, Michigan, Hawaii, Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont and the District Columbia on a list of jurisdictions that have opted not to recognize Columbus Day or observe Indigenous Peoples Day in addition to Columbus Day, a federal holiday.

For many Native Americans across the country, including the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, celebrating Columbus Day is the equivalent of justifying the explorer’s cruelty and violence toward the Native Americans.

Even when Dennis has taught the history behind Columbus’ voyage to Micmac students in his community, the “watered-down” age-appropriate versions of the genocide that came about from disease, violence and enslavement proved “shocking” for the young listeners.

“When the children asked ‘why?’ the only answer I could give them was that it all happened for land acquisition and gold,” Dennis said. “Once you look at the real history, there is no way to justify having a holiday around it. It’s like asking the Jewish community to celebrate Hitler’s birthday.”

While popular stories have told that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, he in fact first landed on what is known today as the Bahamas and later came across other Caribbean islands such as modern-day Cuba and Haiti, believing they were the Indies. Four centuries before Columbus’ arrival, Norse explorer Leif Eriksson landed in North America and explored an area that he named “Vinland,” the exact location unknown to scholars.

Though the celebration of Columbus originated among San Francisco’s Italian community in 1869, the first formal observance in the United States did not happen until 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation declaring Oct. 28 Columbus Day. President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation recognizing Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1937 after lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization within the Catholic Church named for Columbus, and New York City’s Italian community.

Indigenous Peoples Day has received backlash among those who feel that Columbus Day is a celebration of European peoples’ contributions to the United States. Earlier this month Waterville mayor Nick Isgro, a Republican, proclaimed Oct. 14 Columbus Day in the city. The proclamation, quoting Harrison, lauded Columbus as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”

Dennis remembers hearing the traditional tales about Columbus in school but saw the stories as things to “remember” for the sake of getting good grades. As he grew up and heard racial slurs from people who embraced the more favorable version of Columbus’ story, he began to research the history for himself.

Although the Micmacs did not come into contact with Columbus, the 15th and 16th centuries marked the tribe’s first contact with Portuguese settlers from Europe. Dennis noted that when the British came to Maine, they were “fascinated” that the Micmacs could speak Porteguese, though they only knew words associated with trade. The tribe later met European settlers from Scotland and French countries.

“This ‘new land’ was seen as having an abundance of resources like wood and different animals,” Dennis said. 

He noted that French settlers had good relations with the Micmacs and Maliseets in Maine and Atlantic Canada, and through the years many people from the native and European cultures married. When the British colonists deported Acadians from the maritime provinces of Canada to Louisiana, where they became known as “Cajuns,” many Micmac and Maliseets were forced from their homes.

Through his research, Dennis also learned of scalpings of Micmac people that occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“They sold women’s and children’s scalps for half the price of men’s scalps,” Dennis said. “They did this as proof that the ‘Indians’ were being killed.”

Today Dennis views Indigenous Peoples Day as a celebration of Native American survival and an acknowledgement that native people lived in America centuries before Columbus’ arrival. He hopes that people use the new holiday as a way to acknowledge the many perspectives of history.

There are no formal celebrations planned in the Micmac community for Indigenous Peoples Day, though Dennis will participate in a larger gathering of Wabanaki tribes in Portland. He said that the holiday will serve as both a “memoriam” for native people who have been lost and a positive step in the healing process.

“We’ll spend the days with our families and making memories. I think that’s what most holidays really mean,” Dennis said.