An etching of Orono's seal sits, attached, to the Orono Town Council chambers on Sept. 13, 2021. A group commissioned by the council is calling on the town to change the seal. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Orono is moving ahead with new welcome signs that depict the Penobscot Nation chief for whom the town is named despite a recent recommendation that the town change its seal that features the chief’s likeness.

Orono councilors on Monday said they favored the new welcome signs, going against the vote of a previous council more than a year ago. The councilors’ recommendation also came less than three months after a town committee focused on diversity and racial equity recommended Orono change its town seal.

The town has been working for more than a year to design new signs, which will welcome people to town and direct them toward downtown, the University of Maine and elsewhere. The issue of using Chief Joseph Orono’s likeness came up early on in the process, and the council at the time voted 4-3 against using it, according to Town Manager Sophie Wilson.

But Wilson said she wanted to bring the discussion up again because the previous vote was so close.

“The idea of a 4-3 vote on gateway signs just really doesn’t sit well, especially given the amount of infrastructure that is going to come in behind that and the amount of money the town is going to pay,” Wilson said. “It should be something that, generally, folks can live with.”

The current signs the town has are in disrepair and need to be replaced, so time is of the essence, said Tom Perry, the current council chair.

“It is almost embarrassing to not have a decent sign up,” he said.

The town’s use of Chief Orono’s likeness on its seal has been a point of contention on multiple occasions dating as far back as 1990, Wilson said.

In September, a special committee focused on diversity and racial equity in Orono recommended that the town change its seal and engage the Wabanaki community in redesigning it.

But the town has continued to defend its use of Chief Orono on its seal. The town’s website states that the seal respectfully depicts the chief, and that the seal is meant to honor him.

“The Town of Orono consulted with representatives of The Penobscot Nation and the Wabanaki Center to ensure the seal is historically correct and respectful,” the website reads.

However, it is not part of Penobscot culture to name places after people, the Penobscot Nation’s historian and the chair of Native American programs at the University of Maine told Orono councilors in August 2020.

Historians aren’t in complete agreement on the story of Joseph Orono. However, there’s general agreement that Orono was likely a Chief or Sachem and was active during the Revolutionary War, supporting the colonists against the British Empire.

When Orono was founded in 1806, it was named in his honor.

Town Councilor Cheryl Robertson on Monday argued in favor of keeping the seal on the new signs as a way to continue to honor Chief Orono’s legacy.

With the five councilors who attended the meeting Monday in agreement, the town will move forward with developing new mockups of the signs that will feature a watermarked version of the town’s seal. The sign will also say, “Welcome to the home of the University of Maine.”

Wilson said she was unsure of the specific cost of the signs now, but the town was given a quote of around $7,000 per sign before the COVID-19 pandemic. The town has eight signs that it intends to replace.

Installation would begin in spring 2022.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...