Nearly two weeks after Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro presented a proclamation declaring Oct. 14 remain Columbus Day, more than 50 people gathered Monday evening on the steps of City Hall to mark Indigenous Peoples Day.

Monday evening’s rally was organized by local activist Bryan Evans, who said he wanted the event to celebrate indigenous people while making a statement.

“I wanted everyone to be able to come together in peace,” Evans said. “But also tonight is about letting a certain someone know that his beliefs aren’t the beliefs of the entire city.”

The rally included speeches from U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet; state Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville; Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana and Colby College student Kale Sapiel, a member of the Penobscot Nation.

In her speech, Sweet said changing the holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity for growth.

“We need to be honest about the past and how it’s created our current conditions,” Sweet said. “And we have the opportunity now to work diligently to respect our first peoples and create a new path forward.”

Drummers from the Lakota, Mi’kmaq and Penobscot nations prepare to drum during the Indigenous Peoples Day rally in Waterville on Monday.

Sweet also noted the location of the rally was especially timely given the recent events involving Isgro and Indigenous Peoples Day.

“It’s time for all of us to make a commitment to that change, which is why it’s particularly important and poignant to be here in front of Waterville City Hall, where we have a mayor who has insisted on staying with the old ways,” she said.

“Someone who wants to hold on to a power structure that was hateful and hurtful and does not respect the first peoples of this nation, but the really wonderful thing is we are seeing around this country and in this state people rising up and saying, ‘There is a different way.'”

Isgro’s proclamation urged Waterville residents to continue honoring Oct. 14 as Columbus Day, even though Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill earlier this year that replaced the state holiday to recognize Native Americans instead.

In his statement, Isgro praised Christopher Columbus as a “skilled navigator and man of faith,” who blazed the trail for millions of European immigrants who came after him. Isgro also used Columbus to spotlight the contributions of Italian-Americans.

“Italian-Americans constitute our nation’s fifth largest ethnic group,” the proclamation said. “Whose contributions to American culture, business and civic life have been of inquestionable value to our diverse shared history.”

Isgro read his proclamation during a City Council meeting Oct. 1, and has received both support and criticism from the community.

Maulian Dana, who was appointed as the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador in 2017, spoke about the triumphs indigenous people have made over the past year, including the end of the Skowhegan Indians mascot and the statewide recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day.

“I got bitten by the bug super early, seeing my father serve as the chief of the tribe and watching him struggle with the state of Maine,” Dana said. “Being a high school student and seeing my peers dancing around and calling themselves Indians because they played for a sports team, I now think we’ve made these big changes, and it really has set the table for increased, positive relations with the state and different communities like Waterville.”

Dana also pointed to the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women in the country.

Maulian Dana’s daughter dances to the drums at the Indigenous Peoples Day rally in Waterville on Monday.

“I’m wearing a red dress today to honor the plight of the murdered and missing indigenous women,” Dana said. “One in three women will be assaulted or murdered in her lifetime. I’m a Penobscot woman (and) I have two Penobscot daughters, so that statistic really hits home for me and it really bothers me. When we read Columbus’ journals, him and his men talk about doing horrific things to all the people. But I find the things about the women especially disturbing.

“We hear a lot of people say, ‘Well, it was a different time and he was a man of his time.’ A man thinking of women in this way, a man targeting people for genocide. I just don’t see how that should be celebrated no matter what context you’re putting it in.”

Like Sweet, Dana said changing the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day was not to change the course of history.

“We don’t want to erase history, we want to learn from it,” Dana said. “Teach about Columbus in school the way you teach about Hitler. We don’t have a Hitler day, right? We all know what happened, and it shows what human beings are capable of when they’re drunk on power and superiority.”

Near the end of her speech, Dana offered words of encouragement to Waterville residents who feel divided over the renaming of the holiday.

Suzanne Hedrick approaches the rally on Monday night with a sign.

“I really think that when people come together and connect as humans, no matter what you’re calling it, if you’re embracing the right truths about humanity you’re going to feel positive growth and change,” Dana said.

“And I promise you, Waterville, you will connect with your neighbors, even if you all don’t agree. And now that we have Indigenous Peoples Day statewide, everybody is going to have to get used to it.”

Among the crowd of attendees was University of Maine student Evangelia Suleiman, who said while the rally was a step in the right direction, the relationship the United States has with its indigenous people has a long way to go.

“I think it’s a start. I mean Maine has been ignoring indigenous people for centuries,” Suleiman said. “But having people like Mayor Isgro, who is refusing to comply, doesn’t do any good. We need to put our money where our mouth is, and really start listening to indigenous people.”

Also present at Monday’s rally was Brian Aubut and his group of drummers from the Lakota, Mi’kmaq and Penobscot nations.

Aubut, who is of Penobscot and Mi’kmaq descent, led the group that played on the drum named “Grandmother’s Tears.”

Aubut said the recognition of indigenous people Oct. 14 has touched him deeply.

“It wasn’t too long ago that this, what were doing here tonight, was illegal,” Aubut said. “A lot of our ways have been lost. It makes me feel good that people have started to acknowledge indigenous people.”

Maine is now one of 12 states to have changed Oct. 14 from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.

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