Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed a bill Friday officially replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in the state, joining a handful of other states and municipalities that have already made the change.
(South Dakota was the first state in the nation to drop Columbus Day, swapping it out for Native American Day back in 1990.)
“I believe we are are stronger when we seek a fuller and deeper understanding of our history,” Mills said in a signing statement Friday. “I believe we are stronger when we lift up the voices of those who have been harmed and marginalized in the past, because there is power in a name and in who we choose to honor.”
Earlier this month, the Maine House passed a bill banning public schools from having mascots and logos depicting Native Americans.
Maine has long had a strained relationship with its four federally recognized tribes. Prior to a 1980 land settlement, its indigenous population laid claim to more than two-thirds of the state thanks to the controversy surrounding a 1790 treaty signed 30 years before the state existed.
While the 1980 agreement resolved land ownership questions, its poor wording has prompted sovereignty disputes over everything from Environmental Protection Agency rules mandating heightened water quality standards in tribal rivers (Mills opposed them as Maine’s former attorney general) to casino locations.
In 2015, then-Gov. Paul LePage (R) didn’t help matters as he prepared to leave office and revoked his own 2011 executive order calling for Maine’s tribes to be included in laws and policies that affect them. Tribal leaders at the time told the Bangor Daily News they suspected the move was retribution for their support for the EPA safeguarding water quality on tribal lands.
Maine’s Native American tribes responded by pulling their representatives from the state legislature. Per The Associated Press, Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Nation currently serves as the state’s sole tribal legislator.
Clarissa Sabattus, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, told the AP the state has infringed on the tribe’s sovereignty to the point of forcing tribal members to apply for state permits to hunt on tribal lands.
“It’s difficult as a sovereign nation when we have a state government that pushes back on things continually,” Sabbatus said.