Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro found himself embroiled in a bitter confrontation with area residents over his proclamation recognizing Columbus Day, but was not without his defenders.
The Waterville Morning Sentinel reports that the Republican mayor read his one-page proclamation when Tuesday night’s City Council meeting started, drawing a mixture of criticism and support from the audience. Exchanges became heated at times, and Isgro at one point threatened to have the police chief eject people from the meeting if they spoke without being recognized, according to the newspaper.
The proclamation, quoting President Benjamin Harrison, lauds Christopher Columbus as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment,” whose arrival in the Americas in 1492 prompted the migration of millions of Europeans, who “brought their art, music, science, medicine, philosophy and religious principles to America.”
“The accomplishments of Columbus through his courage and willingness to take unknown risks in exchange for discovery, knowledge, and greatness has trickled down through each generation of Americans, from the early pioneer settlers to the exploration of the vast universe beyond our atmosphere,” the proclamation reads.
It further states that Italian-Americans as an ethnic group have made contributions to American business, civic life and culture of “unquestionable value.”
In an early exchange, Isgro said Columbus Day is a federal holiday, according to the Sentinel, and its recognition came in the wake of an 1891 lynching of 11 Italian-Americans in New Orleans. Then-President Harrison called the crime “deplorable,” according to The New York Times, and in 1892, he issued a proclamation declaring Oct. 21 Columbus Day.
“It was actually a pro-immigrant holiday,” the Sentinel quoted Isgro as saying.
But audience member Meg Charest called the holiday a “malevolent erasure of a long and violent history of genocide and abuse of indigenous people,” and asked that Isgro apologize and declare Oct. 14 Indigenous Peoples Day, according to the Sentinel.
A member of the city’s planning board, Cathy Weeks, defended Isgro, saying recognizing Columbus Day wasn’t an issue until earlier this year when Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, signed into law a bill that dropped the state’s recognition of the federal holiday in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, a move Weeks likened to the Islamic State group’s destruction of cultural artifacts in Syria.
Maine is among a growing number of states — including New Mexico and Vermont — that now recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. That followed a movement among Maine communities, starting in Belfast in 2015, to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day as activists worked to shift perception of Columbus, whose arrival in the Americas ushered in centuries of subjugation, enslavement and genocide against the continent’s original inhabitants.
Bangor, Brunswick, Gouldsboro, Orono and Portland were among the other towns and cities that recognized Indigenous Peoples Day prior to April, when Mills dropped the state’s recognition of Columbus Day.
Columbus’ first trans-Atlantic voyage in 1492 was sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus would make three additional ocean crossings to the Americas, in 1493, 1498 and 1502. Columbus served for a time as governor of Hispaniola, but that came to an end in 1500 when he was led back to Spain in chains after complaints from colonists about mismanagement and brutality prompted the visit of a royal commissioner. He was freed on order of Ferdinand and Isabella, who later financed his 1502 expedition.