The planned visit of the Nao Santa Maria along the Penobscot River has drawn criticism from Indigenous leaders around the state, who have asked for the visit to be canceled. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association

Organizers canceled a Maine bicentennial tall-ships event set for the lower Penobscot River next week after tribal leaders expressed outrage over the inclusion of a replica of a vessel sailed by Christopher Columbus.

Dick Campbell, a former Republican state legislator from Orrington and lead organizer of a tall ships festival put on by the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association, said in a statement on Friday evening that the visit by the Nao Santa Maria, a replica of one of the three ships sailed by Columbus during his 1492 voyage to the New World, would be canceled.

“In our interest to celebrate Maine’s maritime heritage and bring masted ships to the Penobscot basin and upriver to Bangor, we failed to appreciate the symbolic significance of bringing the replica of the Santa Maria to port,” Campbell said. “We are now much more aware of the impact having that vessel here has on those whose histories pre-date Maine statehood. We apologize to those who have been offended by our error.”

Columbus’ 1492 voyage and subsequent ones to the Caribbean, Central America and South America paved the way for European colonization of the New World. He and his men killed, enslaved and brutalized native people and introduced diseases that killed many more.

A historical reevaluation of Columbus in recent years has led many U.S. jurisdictions to replace Columbus Day — traditionally held on the second Monday of October — with Indigenous People’s Day, including Maine. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, signed a law renaming the holiday in 2019 as part of an effort to repair the state’s relationship with tribes.

The replica was one of several tall ships that was set to visit various spots along the river between Bucksport and Bangor during a tall-ships festival between Friday and July 18 organized by the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association as part of Maine’s 200th anniversary celebration, which was largely pushed back a year from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ship is presently docked in Bucksport, where it arrived on Thursday after sailing up the coast. It is unclear if it will depart on Saturday or if it will stay moored for a few more days.

The event was also to feature visits to Bucksport and Bangor by the Schooner Bowdoin, Maine Maritime Academy’s 88-foot sailing training ship, the 175-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Abbie Burgess, and the University of Maine’s 3D printed boat, 3Dirigo, the largest 3D printed object in the world. All four vessels’ visits have been canceled, according to the statement.

Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, said in a Facebook post that having a ship that is a replica of one sailed by Columbus was disrespectful and a desecration of a river that the Penobscot hold sacred.

“The Penobscot Nation is disappointed and disheartened that any group would use a replica of a ship used by Christopher Columbus to celebrate the heritage and statehood of Maine,” tribal leaders said in a statement on Friday afternoon. “While offensive in numerous ways, as well as historically inaccurate, it is also deeply harmful to the Wabanaki Nations as well as the descendants of all Indigenous Nations.”

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, chair of the state’s bicentennial commission, said in a Friday statement that the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association’s event is not funded by nor is officially part of the state’s bicentennial celebration. He asked the group to remove the ship from the event.

During original planning for the celebrations in 2019, the festival was endorsed by the commission, which allowed it to use its logo. That endorsement was issued before they knew which ships would be visiting. When the tall ships festival was first announced in early 2020, the Nao Santa Maria was not part of the lineup.

“While the ship’s visit is not hosted by Maine200 and the bicentennial commission is not involved in the planning for this event, we regret that this ship was chosen for an event that is associated with Maine’s bicentennial, as the mistreatment of Native Americans is a devastating part of Maine’s history,” Diamond said.

The Nao Santa Maria, which is run by a Spanish nonprofit, previously visited Maine in 2019, when it docked in Portland Harbor. It did not draw wide criticism then.

The controversy came after a national reckoning over race and as tribes struggle to advance a sweeping sovereignty effort that has been resisted by Mills. She vetoed a bill late last month that would have allowed tribes to run gaming businesses on their land.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.