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YARMOUTH — The town has removed a 90-year-old cemetery historical marker after residents complained its language was racist and offensive.
The plaque, removed by Yarmouth Public Works on Feb. 7, referred to the Abenaki tribe, part of the Wabanaki nation, as “savage enemies.”
Yarmouth Town Manager Nathaniel Tupper said he was not aware of the marker’s existence, but after residents brought it to his attention early last week, he looked into it right away.
“When I saw a photo of it, I immediately knew why it would be offensive,” Tupper said.
The plaque, at the Pioneer Burial Ground off Route 88 and Gilman Road, was inscribed “Here rest those who in the third and permanent settlement of the town, defended it against savage enemies, some at the sacrifice of their lives.”
Before removing it, Tupper had to confirm whether the plaque was a historical marker or if it was a gravestone, since removal of a gravestone is illegal.
“Because the text on the plaque said ‘in the third and permanent settlement of the town’ and there was no mention of North Yarmouth, it was more of a clue to me that this was a historical marker and not a tombstone from hundreds of years ago,” he said.
Tupper said he also sought additional guidance and contacted the Maine Old Cemetery Association, the Maine Municipal Association, and the Maine Preservation Commission.
“After consulting with all of them we determined it was a historical marker, not a grave marker, and it could, in fact, be removed,” he said. “I let the Town Council know what was going on and they agreed it was offensive, so the plaque was removed and it is temporarily in our care until the Yarmouth Historical Society takes it and we decide what should go in its place.”
Tupper said there was no cost to the town to remove the plaque, which measures about 1 foot by 2 feet and was affixed to a rock that is approximately 3 feet wide and 5 feet high.
According to Tupper, the marker was installed by the Yarmouth Village Improvement Society in 1929. In an email late Tuesday, VIS member Linda Grant said she could provide little information about the plaque or its history, other than that the Abenaki “were to the best of our knowledge the early Indians who came down seasonally encamping along the Royal River to fish and grow crops in the fertile soil.”
“The Village Improvement Society was willing to help and they were in agreement of the removal of the plaque,” Tupper said. “… I am sure the Village Improvement Society will want to have a say in what goes in place of that previous plaque.”
Maria Girouard, who is the executive director of the Wabanaki REACH statewide cross-cultural collaboration, said she was impressed with how quickly the town took the plaque down.
According to its website, Wabanaki REACH – Reconciliation-Engagement-Advocacy-Change-Healing – “advances Wabanaki self-determination by strengthening the cultural, spiritual and physical well-being of Native people in Maine.”
“I really appreciate those who are taking the lead in making change happen,” Girouard said. “This is an opportunity to rewrite in a more truthful and inclusive way, the history that we have inherited from our ancestors. There’s no doubt about it – it is an ugly one.”
Katie Worthing, executive director of the Yarmouth Historical Society, said the plaque will eventually be displayed at the organization’s museum with an appropriate back story explaining its history and the meaning behind the use of the language.
“There was a lot of community interest because the language is offensive and quite dehumanizing,” Worthing said. “The marker will be in our collection so we can preserve it, and not in an effort to paper over this uncomfortable history, but instead using it as an opportunity to start discussing the truthful stories of our past and explain why we don’t use that language anymore. … I hope this will help us move forward in a positive way.”
Being honest about Native American history and land settlement is a first step, Girouard said.
“I believe many people are ready to be more honest about our ugly past and to own it so that we can look at ways to restore our relations with one another and with the land,” she said.
“Sometimes people don’t even care about these matters,” she continued, “but they are coming to the forefront now and it’s great that there are people in this community that want to do the right thing.”
Yarmouth removed this historical marker from the Pioneer Burial Ground off Gilman Road. It described Native Americans as “savage enemies.” (Courtesy Harris Gleckman)