Columbus No More: Select Board Renames Holiday to Indigenous People’s Day

December 6, 2023
• The second Monday in October will now be Indigenous People’s Day in Needham after the Select Board unanimously supported the change at its Tuesday meeting.

Following the Nov. 28 public hearing on the matter, Chair Marianne Cooley said the board received a number of emails, the majority of which signaled residents’ desire to change the holiday and get rid of the Columbus moniker altogether.

Cooley reiterated comments she made at the previous meeting, stating that “Columbus was, at best, a difficult figure to defend” and that the holiday’s first iteration intended to highlight American progress as opposed to Columbus himself.

The goal is not to erase history, Cooley said, but it’s time “to move on and acknowledge particularly where this community is rooted.” The Columbus name will likely live on in the nation’s lexicon, she said, including in Columbia University and the District of Columbia.

Vice Chair Kevin Keane took a historical approach to Columbus and his reputation, first acknowledging the difficulty in coming to terms with a once beloved figure. Despite Americans’ reverence for the explorer, Keane said the leadership of Columbus’s time publicly criticized him for his conduct overseas.

Having enslaved, tortured and killed indigenous people, Columbus lost support of the monarchy and his titles.

“The king and queen brutally repressed Jews and Muslims in Spain, and they instigated the Spanish Inquisition, yet in their eyes, Columbus went too far. He had crossed the line,” Keane said. “So I think we can safely say he’s a flawed character.”

With that context in mind, Keane said he is in favor of the holiday name change.

More than two dozen Massachusetts towns and cities, including Newton, observe Indigenous Peoples Day, and legislators are currently pushing for its adoption at the state level. Needham Public Schools renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in 2021.

Recognized holidays, statues and other practices are a reflection of the town and its values, Select Board member Cathy Dowd said. In the age of colonization, “white supremacy” was a dominating force, she said, so celebrating Columbus through the holiday is “problematic.”

Clerk Heidi Frail said it’s important to reexamine how history is taught, especially knowing what society knows now. When Columbus Day first came to be, it offered Italians — then a discriminated ethnic class — a sense of belonging and “pride and a feeling of being seen,” Frail said.

But that’s not the case anymore.

“When she arrived in the U.S., my Jewish grandmother pretended to be Italian, renamed herself, because it was so much easier to get a job as an Italian,” Frail said. “So I think that circumstances change, and I think that’s certainly the case for Italian-Americans today.”

It’s also time to properly address the tragic losses Native Americans endured, Frail added, and the genocide they experienced at the hands of Europeans.

Member Marcus Nelson echoed Frail’s sentiments, recalling his time on the Human Rights Committee and participating in conversations about Columbus and the implications of renaming the holiday. The change, he said, “is pretty much overdue.”

“When you think about the stolen land that we’re on, when you think about the lack of recognition overall for indigenous peoples and the contributions that so many people have made and the sacrifices and the devastation that has gone on and that still happens in parts of the country, I think that is something that we need to recognize,” Nelson said.

During the public hearing, some locals voiced opposition to the change due to Columbus Day’s cultural significance among Italian-Americans. Before the vote Tuesday, Cooley said that the board would welcome suggestions for other ways to pay tribute and celebrate that community.

“I was somewhat dismayed by somebody who wrote, ‘I hope you’re listening,’” she said. “The answer is, we’re always listening, and there are voices that say many things. Not everybody is always going to be happy, but I think the decision would be a right decision to make a change for Needham.”

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