Emma Davis, Maine Morning Star, February 7, 2024
At least 16 places in Maine have names that include racial or ethnic slurs, although by law many were supposed to be eradicated decades ago, according to ongoing research by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations.
In 1977, Maine’s first Black state legislator Gerald Talbot sponsored a bill that prohibited the use of the n-word in the names of places, and in 2000, Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative Donald Soctomah got a bill passed eradicating from place names the sq-slur, a racist term for a Native American woman.
However, Talbot’s daughter, House Speaker Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), discovered in 2020 that her father’s bill had not been effectively enforced, nor had Soctomah’s measure. Several islands and other sites still illegally had names that bore slurs against Black people and Native American women.
Talbot Ross was behind a 2022 law intended to rectify noncompliance, tasking the Permanent Commission to create a council to identify remaining offensive place names. While Maine has been ahead of the curve in outlawing slurs from place names, the continued existence of offensive names in the state show oversight is still lacking.
Maine’s state names authority doesn’t exist in statute. Instead, a volunteer has been doing this work, which geologists, academics and others say is not reasonable for the task at hand. As a result, the Permanent Commission and Talbot Ross put forth new legislation to create a Maine Board on Place Names, which the State and Local Government Commission heard for the first time Tuesday.
The bill does not recommend nor mandate any specific name changes but would formalize the naming and renaming process, Talbot Ross said, “so that we do not have derogatory terms that describe geographical places that could harm your children and mine.”
For example, the council discussed whether the word “negro” in place names should be deemed offensive. Historically, at least 60 places had the n-word or “negro” in their names. Today, 12 places in Maine still have the term “negro” in their name, many of which had been changed from the n-word after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall required a blanket substitution in 1963.
On the other hand, some names that appear commemorative might actually have negative connotations. The Place Justice Advisory Council found 163 places in Maine named after Indigenous people. “In these cases, which might at first appear to honor these individuals, what we have to ask is ‘Who did the naming?’” questioned Meadow Dibble, a project lead on the research. “Often what is being celebrated is people’s deaths, rather than honoring them.”
The Place Justice Advisory Council identified 89 problematic or potentially problematic terms in place names across the state, with at least 12 places with derogatory terms in their names and hundreds of places named after people who harmed Black or Native people.
These findings are based on a database of 18,717 records of Maine geographic features recognized by the United States Board on Geographic Names. Working with the Prince Project, the Center for the Study of Global Slavery and the Upstander Project, the council cross referenced these place names with existing datasets on enslavers, slave traders and people who committed atrocities against Indigenous people in Maine.
At least 110 places in Maine are named after slaveholders, according to the council’s research including the towns of Gardiner, Whitefield and Shapleigh. At least 110 places are named after people who committed violence against Indigenous people, with 44 in Oxford County alone, according to Dibble.
For example, the town of Lovell was named after Captain John Lovewell, who led a deadly scalping expedition in 1725 to Pequawket, now named Fryeburg after the cousin of one of the other men on this expedition.
“It can be difficult to layer onto these beautiful landscapes the knowledge of the almost unfathomable violence that occurred there,” Dibble said, “but turning away is an act of willful ignorance.”