Local communities consider switch from “Columbus Day”

 Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

BY EMMA RUBIN ’20

The second Monday in October, known in most cities throughout the U.S. as Columbus Day, has recently been the subject of increasing contention. The growing controversy is part of a national reckoning with the human rights abuses that followed the arrival of the holiday’s namesake, Christopher Columbus, to the Americas in 1492.

Berkeley, CA was the first city to change the holiday to Indigenous People’s Day in 1992, according to the New York Times. This coincided with the quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival. Since then, the movement to rename the holiday has continued to pick up steam — within the Pioneer Valley, Amherst and Northampton have both rejected Columbus Day since 2016.

According to MassLive, the original petition shared with Amherst’s Town Meeting to change the holiday was initiated by an eighth grade class at Amherst Regional Middle School. The middle school students learned about the enslavement of indigenous people at the hands of Columbus and his crew in their readings, which inspired them to make the change.

The Amherst Town Meeting voted in May 2016 to rename the October date following a similar motion in the town’s school committee, which had changed the holiday’s name on the school calendar one month earlier.

In Amherst’s original petition to rename the holiday, the legislation recognized that the arrival of Columbus in 1492 initiated the transatlantic slave trade and that, as noted in his journal entries, Columbus originally intended to enslave the native populations of the Americas. The petition “recommends that the Indigenous People’s Day be observed by the people, with appropriate exercises in the schools and otherwise, to the end that the culture, history and diversity of Native American populations be celebrated and perpetuated.”

Northampton’s City Council also voted in May 2016 to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day. The movement was first initiated by a resident, Rachel Naismith, according to the text of the official resolution. Like Amherst’s resolution, it also received support from local middle schoolers when sixth grade classes from Smith Campus School gave a presentation about Columbus to the Council in December of 2015.

Indigenous People’s Day MA, a group which focuses on promoting Native American culture and renaming Columbus Day across the state, said on their website, “Words have meanings; words control who and what we think about and this has implications on our actions. If we continue to erase indigenous peoples, and celebrate a colonizer (Christopher Columbus) instead, that will have a direct impact on the ways indigenous peoples are treated.”

Katie Dick ’19, a member of the Yakama Nation in Washington, was born and raised on the tribe’s reservation. “Indigenous People’s Day [is] an intentional time to stop and look around and see all of those ways in which white supremacy is saturated into American society,” Dick said. “I just feel like this is a necessary step to become more selfaware as a nation.”

Dick also thought about how, for her, reminders of colonization extend beyond the annual holiday and are present even in the language she speaks.

“My first language is English today because of intentional choices made by the colonizers that were intended to wipe [indigenous people] out,” she said.

While Amherst and Northampton are the only two cities in the Pioneer Valley to have officially renamed the holiday, other towns and cities in the area have also incorporated the honoring of indigenous populations in their traditions.

As part of Latinx Heritage Month, Nueva Esperanza, a Latinx community organization in Holyoke, hosted Taino Remembrance Day to honor the indigenous people of the Caribbean, who were among the first people Columbus encountered when he arrived. Cuyo Social Justice Youth, a group of children ages 9 to 13 under Nueva Esperanza, helped emcee the event, which also included a candlelight vigil.

Mount Holyoke’s official academic calendar does not mention either Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day, but just refers to the entire long weekend as “Fall Break.” On Mount Holyoke’s Campus, the Zowie Banteah Cultural Center and the History Department screened “Native American Nature to Nations” on Oct. 3 with the executive producer and director of the film, Gary Glassman.

As a representative for the Zowie Banteah Cultural Center on campus, Dick attended the screening. She recalled the few Native-centered events at Mount Holyoke she had attended before, which had small turnouts. This included one screening at the cultural center during her first year which was just her and the student worker who had organized the event. But Dick appreciated the large crowd of around 60 people at this year’s screening. “Seeing people there made me feel supported,” she said.

Conversely, in Springfield, a statue of Columbus remains standing at the Springfield Italian-American War Memorial. For some Italian-Americans in the U.S., Columbus has become a symbol of their identity. On Oct. 1, the Italian Cultural Center raised an Italian flag over the monument to honor Italian Heritage Month.

The National Italian-American Federation said in a statement, “We believe that Columbus’ courageous voyage was the catalyst that initiated over 500 years of immigration to the Americas by people from every corner of the earth who were seeking a better life for their families.”

The organization also recognized the movement to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day and said that it hopes this movement can be done with “civility and respect for other people’s heritage and memorials,” and believes that the two holidays can coexist. Boston celebrates a parade to honor Italian-American heritage annually on the Sunday before Columbus Day. While Columbus Day is still an officially recognized holiday in the city, it also recognizes Indigenous People’s Day.

To Dick, these measures still don’t go far enough. “To me celebrating both is a joke,” she said, “You can’t halfway dismantle white supremacy.”

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