By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer
WESTBOROUGH – Diversity and Inclusion Committee Chair Cara Presley encouraged the Westborough Select Board to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day during the Select Board’s July 20 meeting.
Presley said that the Diversity and Inclusion Committee has taken a number of steps over the past year to learn about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including consulting the founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Massachusetts, researching legislative efforts to make Indigenous Peoples’ Day a state holiday and examining the actions of other municipalities and states toward changing Columbus Day.
“By instituting the new holiday, we will publicly celebrate and raise awareness about the culture and history of indigenous people,” Presley said. “By replacing Columbus Day, we honor the perseverance of indigenous people, despite their suffering at the hands of European colonists, led by Columbus, who overtook inhabited lands and committed genocide of indigenous people.”
The debate over Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day is controversial throughout the United States.
While opponents argue Columbus should not be celebrated due to his role in helping prompt the rapid decline of native populations, supporters disagree.
“We believe that the detractors of Columbus have not presented an honest account of his role in history,” the Italian American Alliance wrote in a recent open letter to the Westborough Select Board.
“Christopher Columbus is the penultimate symbol of the Italian American and immigrant communities,” that letter said, saying that “The origins of Columbus Day in the United States are founded in the very principles of equality and justice.”
One Select Board member, Patrick Welch, said that he supports Indigenous Peoples’ Day and was looking forward to researching the issue more before deciding where he stands. Welch said, however, that he was cautious with regard to the mutually exclusive nature of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, recalling the experience of discrimination experienced by Italian Americans throughout American history.
“It seems like this kind of trends more toward exclusion of the Italian-American community,” Welch said.
Presley said that she did not want to discount the experience and history of discrimination against Italian-Americans. She said that changing the holiday is only due to its specific association with Columbus.
“Replacing Columbus Day is not an erasure of the history of religious and ethnic discrimination and violence that was experienced by Italian-Americans, who deserve our recognition and honor,” she said. “But it is a disassociation from Columbus, a man known to have committed atrocities against indigenous people that would today likely be considered crimes against humanity.”
Select Board Chair Allen Edinberg said the Select Board could establish an agenda item for the topic. It could also hold a public hearing on whether to change the holiday.
Presley said that, if the Select Board votes to approve of the holiday change, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which voted to endorse the change, would launch community-wide educational lessons about Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Fourteen states, the District of Columbia, and more than 130 American cities observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, according to a 2020 count by the Smithsonian Magazine.
Locally, Westborough and Shrewsbury schools have both recently recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day by marking the date in their official calendars.
Legislation has also been put forward in Massachusetts State House and Senate to designate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
As these changes take place, the day remains known as Columbus Day at the federal level.