Colby Student Government Association votes to recognize Indigenous People’s Day in response to Isgro

In response to the Mayoral Proclamation put forth by Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, the Student Government Association (SGA) voted unanimously to pass a statement in support of Indigenous People’s Day.

The mayor’s statement declared Oct. 14 as Columbus Day, directly opposing legislation signed by Governor Janet Mills, which officially changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in Maine. Isgro’s proclamation described Columbus as a “skilled navigator and man of faith,” urging Waterville residents to “celebrate this day with appropriate ceremonies and remembrances.” 

Several members of the Colby community had strong reactions to this controversial proclamation, including Josh Brause `23, a freshman class senator in SGA. As a response, Brause decided to write a motion asking his fellow SGA members to recognize Indigenous People’s Day.

“Since we’re in Waterville [the Mayor’s proclamation] affected us,” Brause said in a recent interview with the Echo. “So technically we were still celebrating Columbus Day despite everything that we know that is wrong. The larger point is saying that Columbus isn’t someone who’s worth celebrating. Being able to say we can recognize that at Colby is important. We want to fight the institutions that seek to preserve this person who did so much damage to communities of indigenous people.”

Brause also took the time to discuss some of Isgro’s reasons behind the declaration.

“One of the big reasons that [Isgro] ended up doing that, and I recognized this within the motion, is not because of some deep-seated hatred for Native Americans, but for the [appreciation for] Italian-American heritage, despite Columbus having sailed under the Spanish flag,” Brause said. “I think a lot of members of the Italian community look to him as someone who is worth celebrating for a time. But you know there are some really fundamental problems with that. There are better Italians worth celebrating than somebody like Columbus. We know the record that he had in history was really just awful.”

The statement put forth by SGA was largely a symbolic gesture that expressed their support for indigenous communities in Waterville, despite the opposition of the mayor. Some members of SGA, however, were concerned that such a gesture was inappropriate to make. 

“Something else that came up is the question of [if we] should be taking political stances at all,” Brause said. “We came down to deciding that this is something worth recognizing. These people are worth recognizing, and we’re going to do it in the face of somebody who’s trying to shut that down. We’re not going to be complicit in this kind of behavior and we’re going to take a stance. In the past, I think people have had a problem with SGA not being strong enough in what we stand for at Colby. I’m proud to say, it seems like a new direction this year, and we’re going to fight for the values we have as a community.”

Overall, the goal of the statement was not only to establish a stance on the state holiday, but also to push the College to have more conversations concerning indigenous people and inclusivity.

“This is definitely just a start, that’s really important to establish,” Brause said. “We’re not just recognizing this and that’s it. Personally, I would hope that this puts a little pressure on the administration to support indigenous people within the Colby community and Waterville.”

The pressure on the administration to recognize Indigenous People’s Day began long before the start of this year. In recent years, members of the Four Winds Native American Alliance contacted administrators to urge them to recognize the holiday. Representatives from the club were unavailable for interviews.

In the 2018-2019 school year, Four Winds reached out to Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae `94 to discuss changing the name of the holiday on Colby’s calendar. In a recent interview with the Echo, Burrell-McRae explained these events.

“I received an email last year from one of the representatives of Four Winds, and they really wanted to talk I think first about Columbus Day and wanting that to be changed to Indigenous People’s Day,” Burrell-McRae said. “I think for them it was really wrapped up in thinking about this idea of belonging and a sense of inclusion for the Native American community. And even though at the moment, Colby doesn’t have a large number of indigenous students, they thought it was really important to continue to champion the ideals of ensuring that the College was inclusive. So for them the first move was allowing the changing of the name. And they had gotten a lot of people to sign and say that they thought it was something important. So I went over to the Pugh Center in the office and sat with them for an hour or so talking about what inspired them to participate in these sorts of issues”

Burrell-McRae also discussed the work that other communities on campus have been doing with groups of indigenous people in Maine. She spoke highly of the Colby College Museum of Art, and their collaborations with the Wabanaki tribes to create their current exhibition, “Wíwәnikan…the beauty we carry.”

“A number of us had been talking about changing the holiday name before the Maine state legislature decided that they would make the change,” Burrell-McRae said. “And I think that came out of the work that the Museum has been doing with the Wabanaki people. Working with many of the communities to try and put together the beautiful exhibit in the art museum. So I think that stirred conversations for a number of us about if this is something we should be thinking about. And then the governor decided to sign it into law.  So I believe the calendar has been changed to say, ‘Maine state holiday: Indigenous People’s Day.’”

The College will continue to follow the Maine state legislature by changing the holiday’s name on its official calendar. When asked, however, if the administration planned to respond to the statement of Mayor Isgro, Burrell-McRae said, “Our standing is in the actions that we take. So with the actions we’ve been taking to be better, whether it is changing the calendar, making sure in moments such as convocation we acknowledge the native land which the College is built on, and so on, we do the work that you’re asking. And for us, I don’t think it’s appropriate to respond in that way. But I think for the students, we’re incredibly proud that you find your own way to celebrate and acknowledge.”