PORTLAND, Maine — In November, Portland residents are being asked to approve sweeping changes to the city’s charter including controversial items that would result in a strengthened mayor, a financially independent school board and a citizen-led police oversight board.
But, amid the ongoing fury, one charter change question among the eight-question list has been largely overshadowed. It would make Portland the only municipality that officially recognizes in its charter that it sits on unceded land, stolen from Indigenous peoples by European colonizers.
The question, which would alter the governing document’s preamble, was written by charter commissioner Pat Washburn.
It reads, in part, “Portland is located in the unceded territory of the Aucocisco Band of the Wabanaki … European colonizers displaced Wabanaki people by force and went on to displace and harm indigenous peoples throughout what is now Maine and the United States.”
It goes on to say, “We acknowledge that displacement and that harm with sorrow, even as we celebrate and honor the Wabanaki knowledge and culture that continue to thrive in the Tribal Nations that have and always will call this place, the Dawnland, their home.”
Though only symbolic, with no repertory actions attached, Portland lawyer and Passamaquoddy tribal member Michael-Corey Hinton thinks the change is a good start.
“There’s no doubt that this is the very least that can be done,” Hinton said. “It’s important for people to understand why they don’t see Native Americans in southern Maine anymore.”
Many local and statewide organizations now begin meetings with land-acknowledgement statements, and a handful of other towns and cities have passed similar — though less forceful — resolutions. But none have baked such sweeping language into their charters.
Washburn said she claims no Native American ancestry and traces her lineage back to the Mayflower.
“I’m so lillywhite, I glow in the dark,” she said.
Washburn said she wrote the proposed change, in part, to acknowledge her own current privilege is based on the actions of her ancestors, and people like them.
“It’s on us to now support Indigenous people,” she said.
Clearing Native Americans from land around modern-day Portland, making way for white municipal and commercial expansion, was official policy in colonial times.
In 1755, Spencer Phips was the lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which included Maine. That year, Phips declared all local Native Americans to be enemies, rebels and traitors to King George II.
He then called on white residents to, “Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing, and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
Phips’ proclamation promised bounty hunters 50 pounds for capturing males 12 years and older. It also granted 40 pounds each for the scalps of dead males 12 and over, 25 pounds for those of women and 20 pounds for the scalps cut from the heads of children under the age of 12.
“Men, women and children were murdered,” Hinton said. “It was genocide.”
The Rev. Thomas Smith served Portland’s First Parish from 1727 to his death in 1795.
In 1757, Smith and other prominent members of his church funded and equipped a posse of 16 men sent to kill Native Americans east of the city, between the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers.
Not long after, Smith noted receipt of 198 pounds in his journal for, “my part of the scalp money.” The money equaled a quarter of his yearly salary.
Famed Portland poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s great-grandfather was one of Smith’s business partners, as well as Samuel Waldo Jr.
Waldo stood to inherit his father’s vast real estate holdings, which now make up a large swath of Maine’s midcoast, including Waldo and Knox counties. Pushing Native Americans off those lands made it easier, and more profitable, for Waldo to populate the land with white settlers.
Washburn’s preamble proposal first passed Portland’s Charter Commission with a unanimous vote before being placed on the ballot.
Washburn said she’s not aware of any organized opposition to the changes.
“I haven’t heard of anyone unwise enough to oppose this officially,” she said.
However, the Enough is Enough campaign opposes all eight charter ballot questions, including the land acknowledgement. Its website does not present a specific argument against the proposed preamble, however.
The organization is supported by several former and current Portland politicians, including Rep. Michael Brennan, former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen of the 1st District and 24-year City Councilor Nick Mavodones.
Hinton, who works, lives and sends his children to school in Portland, hopes passage of the language change will bring greater awareness of Portland’s bloody history.
“This question hasn’t attracted a lot of attention, but it’s still important,” he said.