SKOWHEGAN — The former chief of the Penobscot Nation will host a gathering on Columbus Day to shift the focus of what American Indians see as the advent of slavery and genocide for the people who were here when the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria came ashore in the New World.

The former chief, Barry Dana, of Solon, said the gathering on Monday will be called Skowhegan Indigenous Peoples Day. It will be held at 3 p.m. in the area of the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market in front of The Pickup at the former county jail in downtown Skowhegan.

“Columbus, in our view, was no different than Hitler in the eyes of the Holocaust victims,” Dana said. “It’s called genocide. When your actions result in genocide and the complete annihilation of millions of people, that is never anything to be honored or celebrated.”

The idea of an Indigenous Peoples Day is not new. The cities of Berkley, Calif., Seattle and Minneapolis already have recognized Indigenous Peoples Days. Hawaii, Oregon and Alaska don’t even recognize Columbus Day. South Dakota renamed the holiday Native American Day in 1990.

But the timing, Dana said, is new in Maine.

“My thought was you could ask governments to make the change from Columbus Day, but what if they take their time or decide not to? One should not have to wait for the government’s permission. We should all just go ahead collectively and decide for ourselves what we’re going to call it,” he said.


Dana, 56, who lost his bid for re-election as chief in 2004, said he wants to recognize indigenous people from around the world and made a declaration on Facebook, which helped spark Monday’s gathering in Skowhegan.

The name “Skowhegan” is an Abenaki word meaning “a place to watch” for catching fish in the Kennebec River, and there is much American Indian history in the area. The 62-foot-tall Bernard Langlais sculpture of an Indian is also in Skowhegan and once again has been attracting visitors interested in the history of the region.

Daniel Tortora, an assistant professor of history at Colby College in Waterville, said Skowhegan and the other communities that have considered changing Columbus Day appear to be trying to put the focus back on Native American culture and contributions to society that previously might have been overlooked.

“I think they are questioning what has been a long-standing tradition, but one that often overlooks the consequences of European settlement and the hardships the Indians then faced as a result of colonization,” Tortora said.

He said Monday’s celebration can remind people of the long history of the Kennebec Valley, including Skowhegan and the Indian settlement at Old Point, in what is now Madison. He said the restoration of the Bernard Langlais Indian sculpture in Skowhegan also has reawakened people to the rich culture of early Indian tribes.

“I think native activists and others are correct to question the one-sided celebration of what was undoubtedly catastrophic events. Columbus’ arrival unleashed a catastrophic decline in Indian population due to disease and slavery and mistreatment,” Tortora said. “They want to put the focus back on Indian culture, back on the persistence of Indians as well in America more generally. It’s certainly true that the Indian perspective on that is absolutely right. Things would have been very different if Columbus hadn’t arrived.”


Christopher O’Brien, an associate professor of history at the University of Maine at Farmington, shared some of Tortora’s views, saying also that Columbus was a man of his time.

“It is certainly true that over time Columbus’ reputation has been challenged; and certainly in the last 150 years or so, deeper examinations of what happened when Columbus arrived from the perspective of native peoples have forced reconsideration,” O’Brien said Friday. “Historians have been looking at this for a very, very long time, and there’s a bit of debate about the total numbers of lives lost with the introduction of European diseases into the Americas; but the numbers are in the millions.”

Dana, an American Indian educator who visits schools and other groups and teaches Indian people traditional cultural skills, said Columbus did not “sail the ocean blue” to “discover” America in 1492, as the old children’s rhyme goes — the continent was already here and populated with people.

“We’re now asking non-native people to accept our view — a view we have always held and that the timing is now,” he said. “Now we no longer allow genocide to be celebrated. He discovered nothing. We were here, we are here and we’ve been here.”

Dana said that, in the tradition of his people, there will not be just one person speaking Monday. Everyone will have a chance to address the gathering on their thoughts of Columbus and the European effect of life in the Americas.

Michael Hoy, a friend of Dana’s also from Solon, said the timing of the event came when he told Dana he would be away this year at an out-of-state woodworkers show on Columbus Day.


Columbus Day?

His friend did not approve.

“It sensitized me to the issue. I’m all for it,” Hoy said. “I think it’s really important that there’s an awareness for his issues and his people. And I thought, ‘Why can’t Skowhegan do the same thing?'”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.