Calling on Castine to have zero tolerance for racism

Posted June 15, 2009, at 8:11 p.m.

Thanks to the BDN for publishing two recent articles honoring Native Americans. The first highlighted World War II veteran and Penobscot elder Charles Shay’s contributions and sacrifices as a young medic in Normandy. It also spoke of the racism Shay encountered in his youth, and how that influenced his decision to pursue a career in the military.

I was reminded of a story my father, now 81, told me. I once asked him why he — a remarkably intelligent person and an eloquent speaker — has such a hard time putting words on paper. To my surprise, his eyes misted, and he said that a teacher in his first (and only) year of college had given him an F in English composition, telling him that “his kind” did not belong in higher education. No matter what he wrote, she said it was not good enough. In the end, she told him that if he tried to repeat the course the next year, she would flunk him again. That was the day my father’s dream of becoming a forester died. He joined the Navy instead — where he ultimately had a fulfilling military career.

Nowadays, it seems inconceivable that something like this could happen, thanks to laws enacted to prevent such blatant discrimination. Yet, as the second article in the June 9 edition of the BDN evidences, there is still progress to be made. The article announced the strengthening of legislation banning the use of derogatory place names such as “squaw.” It was necessary to amend the law because there was still resistance to change among a minority of people who chose to mock the spirit of this legislation by dropping the “w” from “squaw,” keeping the same-sounding, albeit slightly altered, derogatory adjective for a Native American woman on the street sign of their private road. Most people now understand that the word “squaw” is offensive and hurtful to Native Americans as a whole. It is through media such as the BDN that incremental change can be promoted with articles that make Native people and other minority groups visible and real.

In this spirit, I would like to bring to readers’ attention what appears to be an example of institutionalized racism that my daughter Ann (a Penobscot tribal member) and I encountered recently in Castine. We were reading the signs posted about town describing historic events.

One sign stopped us in our tracks. It is located near the small Catholic chapel beside the water and is titled “Site of Ancient Etchemin Camping Place.” It went on to read “Probable site of Bestabe’s permanent camp of eighty wigwams and three hundred savages visited by Biencourt and Father Biard in 1611 …” Savages?! The Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus (2007) defines this word as follows: “1. not domesticated or under human control; 2. lacking complex or advanced culture; 3. lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings.” We were stunned to see this description of Castine’s first inhabitants — who, it appears, were subsequently massacred, according to another nearby sign.

I wondered how this could be considered OK by the town. So I called the Castine town office. The woman who answered the phone told me that I would have to e-mail my concern to the town manager. She also said that she recalled other complaints about the wording on this sign but could not remember how they were resolved. (Clearly, however, the complaints did not result in editing the wording, hence my assertion that this may be an example of institutionalized racism.) Not caring for e-mail correspondence, I called the town office again and asked to speak with the town manager.

After listening to my concern, Dale Abernathy said he has been on the job for only five years and that he has never read the signs about town, and was therefore not aware of the aforementioned reference to Native Americans as “savages.” He did agree that this terminology is racist and derogatory, however. When I asked him how the town would remedy this situation, he said that a proposal to change the wording on the sign would have to go before the town selectmen for a vote. He said the next selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. June 22.

Although Abernathy said he would bring the proposal to the agenda, it might help if other people — Native and non-Native — attend to show support for this change. The use of the word “savages” is an insult to all Native Americans, and it is a blight against the town of Castine.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful demonstration of a town’s zero tolerance for racism if the sign was altered before it had to go to vote before the selectmen? If they could announce at the June 22 meeting that the matter already was resolved and issue an apology to Native Americans who have been belittled by the archaic terminology? I challenge the people of Castine to do what is right, simply because it is the right thing to do. And if this cannot be accomplished without the selectmen’s approval, then please show up at the June 22 meeting to demonstrate your support for change.

Kathy Pollard of Orono is a basket maker and artist.

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