Next year we celebrate Maine’s 200th birthday. Maine achieved a unique place in American history in 1820 when, through a public referendum in which voters overwhelming approved separation from Massachusetts, it completed the balance of one free state and one slave state in the Missouri Compromise.

Much like its motto, Dirigo — “I lead or I direct” — Maine was thought to be the Polar Star or mariner’s guide for all to follow, illustrated by the star at the top of the flag. It was the first state to constitutionally guarantee citizenship to the slaves. James Kent, an early legal scholar, noted that “… in no part of the country except for Maine did the African race … participate equally with the whites in the exercise of civil and political rights.”

The state of Maine may indeed be 200 years old, yet as University of Maine professor Bonnie Newsom, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, reminds us, “People have been living here for at least 11,000 years … living along the Penobscot River for at least 9,000 years.”

In more recent times, Maine has experienced a steady stream of immigrants. At the height of America’s immigration boom in 1910, 1 in 8 Mainers was born overseas.

Yet when people think of Maine, “whiteness” prevails. This perception though ignores the centuries of settlements of Native peoples and the state’s rich history of immigration.

Beginning in the early 1700s, the Irish made up the largest mass migration of refugees, leaving their homeland to escape famine and political oppression. They were deemed “suspicious,” enduring back-breaking labor while confronting political and religious persecution on the streets of many Maine towns.

The next largest wave of immigrants was made up of people of French descent from Quebec and the Maritimes who came to work in Maine’s farms and factories. Researcher and historian James Myall observes that because of their different language and religion they were thought to be an inferior race to northern Europeans; they too faced hostility and persecution.

Restrictive laws reflecting anti-immigrant sentiment included literacy tests making it harder for French speakers to vote, as well as prohibitions against speaking French in public schools. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan’s Maine chapter targeted Franco-Americans as well as Jews, Catholics, Chinese immigrants and African-Americans.

Other immigrant groups followed; each met with resistance and regulation. Nonetheless, they persisted and became important contributors to Maine’s economic and cultural history, establishing communities of their own while thoroughly integrating themselves into Maine life and culture, strengthening and enriching the state. State historian Earle Shettleworth says, “They come for a number of reasons, but they are motivated to come here because they believe that this is a place of fairness and opportunity.”

Despite our complicated history of native domination and immigrant conflict there are many hopeful signs that Maine has again turned to its Polar Star. Among these are the creation of The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which led a truth-seeking process from 2013 to 2015 to uncover the reality about child-welfare practices with Maine’s Native people. It was the first in the country to do so. Maine has also had black mayors as well as black and Native American legislators.

Additionally, several immigrants have joined the ranks of elected officials in Lewiston, Portland and Bangor; while over 300 asylum seekers fleeing crisis in their own countries were recently welcomed and settled in Portland and surrounding towns.

Those new to Maine — mostly from Asia, Africa and Latin America — are in large part young and educated. Their journeys to Maine are a world apart from those of the Frenchmen who landed on St. Croix island more than 400 years ago.

But they, like waves of immigrants before them also “came from away to find a new life and find themselves trying to survive in the cold,” as one news story put it. Maine’s Native Americans, says Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko of the Abbe Museum, “have never been forced away from their homelands; they are still here … their language is attached to the land.”

All those who have settled here, calling Maine home, make the state what it is today and will play a critical role in its future. A 2016 report from the Maine Development Foundation and Chamber of Commerce cautions that the Maine economy will suffer if the state fails to attract, integrate and train immigrants. Nationally, “new immigrants and their children are expected to account for 83 percent of the growth in the U.S. workforce from 2000 to 2050.” Maine will, as well, rely on migration to provide both population and workforce growth.

As the state’s bicentennial approaches, let’s remember that this 200th birthday is one that really has its beginnings over 11,000 years earlier. Let us seize the initiative from which Maine began its quest for statehood.

America needs Maine to once again provide a guiding light as we welcome and embrace our newest neighbors while honoring all those who came before them.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the health and human services and appropriations and financial affairs committees. Luisa S. Deprez is Professor Emerita of Sociology and the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear here monthly.


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