Baseball players walk past a monument dedicated to Louis Sockalexis on Monday at the Purnell Wrigley Field in Waterville. Sockalexis was the first Native American to make it to Major League Baseball. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

As Maine marks its second annual Indigenous Peoples Day, the Alfond Youth and Community Center of Waterville paid tribute to the first Indigenous major league baseball player while local teachers held discussions with students about the impact of colonialism.

To cap off a weekend little league tournament at Purnell Wrigley Field in Waterville, Ken Walsh, chief executive officer for the Alfond Center, and Ralph Thomas, a representative from the Penobscot Nation, unveiled a monument dedicated to Louis Sockalexis, who is revered as the first known Indigenous person to play major league baseball.

According to Walsh, Sockalexis’ mark on baseball was the perfect fit for Purnell Wrigley’s monument garden.

“When we developed the monument square in 2016, each year we’ve honored someone who was a major contributor to baseball in Maine,” Walsh said during a phone interview Monday. “All along we were planning to celebrate Sockalexis, but we were originally going to build it around the Cal Ripken World Series. But when that was canceled due to COVID-19, we thought Indigenous Peoples Day was the perfect opportunity.”

In 2019, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill that officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, making Maine one of seven states to do so.

Thomas, a distant relative of Sockalexis, attended the ceremony and threw the first pitch to start the game.

“I was very impressed with what they had done with the monument,” Thomas said. “I was very pleased with Waterville and what they did to honor him (Sockalexis).”

For Thomas, being able to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day has been long overdue.

“I think it’s about time we have this holiday,” Thomas said.

The baseball field is reflected in a monument dedicated to Louis Sockalexis on Monday at the Purnell Wrigley Field in Waterville. Sockalexis was the first Native American to make it to Major League Baseball. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Louis Sockalexis was born into the Penobscot Nation on Oct. 24, 1871, and was raised on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation.

After playing college baseball at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Sockalexis was offered a contract with the Cleveland Spiders in 1897 where he played as an outfielder for three seasons.

Author Ed Rice wrote a biography on Sockalexis titled, “Baseball’s First Indian: The Story of Penobscot Legend Louis Sockalexis.” On Rice’s website, he describes Sockalexis as “a man who went through the exact same experience Jackie Robinson endured 50 years after him but never-ever gets any credit for doing so.”

Like Robinson, who broke the baseball color line in 1947 when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sockalexis endured extensive racism from fans, fellow players and the media during his time in major league baseball.

In July, Rice told the Norwalk Reflector newspaper of Ohio that Sockalexis was subjected to racist chants from fans yelling phrases like “scalp ’em.” Rice said fans also performed “rain dances” and war cries in the stands.

Additionally, Rice said that Sockalexis inspired the nickname for the Cleveland Indians, the usage of which is still debated today.

After his tenure in the major leagues, Sockalexis returned to the Penobscot Reservation where he struggled with his health, eventually passing away from a heart attack on Dec. 24, 1913, at 42 years old.

Teachers in Fairfield and Pittsfield also honored the holiday with their students last week.

On Friday, Ethan Brownell, a history and politics teacher at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, discussed some of the nonviolent actions the government took throughout history to “cheat Natives out of their land and right” with the students in his AP U.S. history class.

“We’re going to be discussing the walking purchase where the Penn Family in Pennsylvania really instituted this pretty egregious land grab against Native Americans, but (this) was non violent,” Brownell said during a phone interview Thursday. “We tend to see genocide and disease as some of these main culprits, but we do need to acknowledge the fact that there were legal ways that we cheated Native Americans out of their land, but it wasn’t violent, it was definitely coercive. …” 

Brownell’s discussion also focused on the future.

“What does this holiday mean in terms of making things better?” Brownell said. “Because it’s not enough to just say ‘oh you get a holiday, therefore all the problems are solved.’ But what are some ways that we can work with tribes and work with native people to try and help them alleviate the problems that they have had as a result of this imperialism and colonialism.” 

In years past, Brownell has discussed the hero complex that American history has placed on Christopher Columbus and how public opinion has shifted in recent years.

“I had an elective that I taught that was about hero literature in America so we examined hero literature through American history and we used Columbus as a vehicle,” Brownell said. “As I keep reminding kids, this is one of two federal holidays that is named after a person. One, we can all kind of generally agree on, Martin Luther King Jr., does deserve the holiday to honor his achievements and celebrate him as a martyr for the cause of civil rights, but Columbus is a little bit hairier. So what I would have them do in developing an argument is think about how does this begin? Is it a good idea to still celebrate someone like this? And who do we replace it with?” 

This was heavily debated last year when Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro issued a proclamation that declared the holiday that occurred Oct. 14, 2019, would remain Columbus Day in order to honor the “skilled navigator and man of faith.”

Isaac Badenya Thomas, a French and Irish language teacher at Lawrence High School in Fairfield, honored the holiday by discussing the impact that colonialism has on Indigenous languages.

“With the Irish class this year, this lets me do something really different, which is to look at language and history from the perspective of an Indigenous group. In this case it’s Irish language speakers,” Thomas said during a phone interview Wednesday. “What we’re going to be doing in class is to look at things like how language is spread. I also teach a French class, and so it’s very different how the French language spread around the world which was very much like Spanish and English. It spread primarily through violence and colonial expansion … 

“With the Irish the experience is really different. … It (the language) didn’t spread from the barrel of a gun or the tip of a sword like French, Spanish or English, but rather it spread like a number of other Indigenous languages did by people who were forced to emigrate to other places.”

Thomas specifically drew comparisons between the history of the Irish language and the languages of  the Wabanaki Confederacy of Maine which is comprised of the four principal Eastern Algonquian Nations: the Miꞌkmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot.

“We can compare the Irish language to, for example, Maliseet or Passmaquoddy or Miꞌkmaq speakers or the people who are trying to continue to maintain the Penobscot language,” Thomas said. “While there were a significant number of people who still spoke Irish as a daily language, it still required a lot of effort, state support and financial resources to help maintain the language and help spread the language.  This lets us talk and think about what would it be like if we could contribute to decolonizing language in Maine. What it would mean to support these languages in the way that Ireland and the European Union have supported the Irish language and other languages in the same family.” 

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. 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.