PORTLAND, Maine — The state’s largest city will now mark the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day — joining a growing list of cities and towns to recognize native cultures on Columbus Day.
The City Council voted unanimously Monday to use the date of the federal holiday as a day to honor the native peoples, including those who lived in North America long before it was colonized by Europeans. The new ordinance encourages local businesses and other public bodies to do the same.
Before voting the City Council heard impassioned arguments both for and against the proposal. Opponents contended that the change erases Italian-American history, while supporters said that the holiday whitewashes Christopher Columbus’ role in the mass killing of native peoples.
“Columbus represented the beginning of the genocidal policies against our people,” said Maulian Dana Smith, an ambassador for the Penobscot Nation. “He didn’t discover anything because there were already people here.”
City Councilor Pious Ali proposed establishing the local holiday, following other cities and towns in Maine and across the country doing likewise. The council’s decision does not affect the federal holiday marking Columbus’ 1492 landing in the Caribbean.
Several members of Portland’s Italian community spoke against the city establishing Indigenous People’s Day on the same date as Columbus Day.
“Increasingly political correctness, multicultural education, and governments are succeeding to erase history,” said Carmela Reali, president of the Portland Italian Heritage Center. She added that Columbus Day is a patriotic holiday that celebrates Italian immigrants.
The city councilors, however, said that the new local holiday is not scrubbing history nor kowtowing to political correctness, but rather acknowledging the past and making Portland more inclusive.
“I see it not as erasing, but rather revealing history,” said Councilor Belinda Ray, adding that the new holiday would allow Portlanders to “ensure that the people we choose to honor are honorable.”
In Maine, Belfast became the first city to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in 2015, Bangor recently voted to establish the holiday there and Brunswick was also set to vote on establishing the holiday Monday night.
Across the country, more than two dozen cities — including Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix and Denver — have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day on municipal calendars or stopped celebrating the federal holiday. And several states, including Vermont, do not recognize Columbus Day.
The shift away from Columbus Day follows activists working to shift public perception of the explorer’s arrival in the Americas and his treatment of indigenous people. They contend the holiday glorifies the colonization and genocide of native peoples, while its supporters often see it as a celebration of Italian culture.
But recent efforts to have Maine stop marking Columbus Day have failed. This spring, a bill to make Indigenous People’s Day a state holiday fell short of passing the House of Representatives. It failed on a mostly partisan vote, with most Republicans opposed.