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There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the brief visit of the replica ship, the Nao Santa Maria, to Maine.
The most important, perhaps, is that history isn’t a record set in stone centuries ago. What we now know and accept, for example, about Christopher Columbus’ journey in 1492 is a lot different from what was taught just a few decades ago.
Columbus never reached what is now the United States. He didn’t “discover” America, a land that was already inhabited by Indigenous people who had lived on the continents for centuries. His journey through what is now Central and South America (he thought he was in Asia) was not a triumphant arrival, but rather it began an era of violence, exploitation and disease that brought enduring harm to the Indigenous population.
This is one reason that many states, including Maine, have stopped celebrating Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
This is not a revision of history or an attempt to bury uncomfortable truths. Rather, it is part of a more honest telling of the events that shaped our world.
Speaking of which, the origin of Columbus Day is likely unknown to most Americans. The holiday was created after the vigilante lynchings of 11 Italian men who were accused, but acquitted, of killing the police chief in New Orleans.
When it became clear that the 1891 lynchings were a stain on the city, and the United States, which had lost international favor after the Mexican-American war and the U.S. Civil War, President Benjamin Harrison sought a way to honor the country’s Italian residents.
Artist, scientist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci, artist Michelangelo Buonarotti, astronomer Galileo Galilei, writer Dante Alighieri, and explorers Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus were among the men on a list compiled by White House staff. Harrison chose Columbus because the year — 1892 — marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in what is today the Bahamas. Italy sent a statue of the explorer, which was unveiled in New York City, and the rest, as they say, is history.
We believe it is possible to tell the stories of the daring explorers who voyaged to distanced lands without ignoring or minimizing the impact on the people and cultures that were often ravaged and enslaved by these men, who were often sent off to conquer new lands for distant kings and queens seeking to expand their empires — and power.
This opportunity was missed when organizers of the state’s bicentennial included the Nao Santa Maria, a replica of one of Columbus’ ships, in events to belatedly celebrate Maine’s 200th anniversary. The inclusion of a replica of a ship that never sailed to Maine and is a symbol of a hurtful — and often distorted — time in American history seemed an odd choice.
The boat arrived in Bucksport last week and was set to sail up the Penobscot River for a stint in Bangor this week. When members of the Penobscot Nation heard about the ship’s arrival, they expressed hurt and shock that the ship — and by extension Columbus’ visit — was part of the state’s bicentennial celebration, which was extended into this year because of the COVID pandemic.
A lot of angst, frustration and confusion could have been avoided by taking one simple step — including members of the tribes in Maine in the decisions about bicentennial events. Instead, state and local event organizers and community leaders were left pointing fingers at one another while they issued apologies.
This is a second lesson about history. It is too often told from only one perspective, while those of other groups — especially those with less power — are left out or glossed over. Seeking and including the perspectives of those who were affected by Columbus results in a fuller understanding of history.
“Indigenous people are one of the marginalized groups in Maine that are under represented and made invisible,” Maulian Dana, the Penobscot tribal ambassador, said in a recent Facebook post. “There is so much more to teach children than the repeated and harmful glorification of colonization and genocide.”
If there is a positive that can come out of this situation, it is that the Nao Santa Maria sparked a conversation about history, inclusion and representation. Moving forward, that conversation should happen proactively rather than as part of an apology after the fact. To make a meaningful long-lasting difference, that conversation must continue and be broadened to include more people and perspectives.