Westford Residents Celebrating Columbus Day This Weekend, Hoping To Save Holiday In Their Town

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/10/08/westford-residents-celebrating-columbus-day-this-weekend-hoping-to-save-holiday-in-their-town/

Columbus Day supporters in Westford are planning a community celebration of the holiday on Monday, in anticipation of a town vote on whether it should continue.

Italian music, talks on the history and importance of the holiday, and a display of a replica of the flag that flew on Christopher Columbus’s flagship in 1492 are planned for 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday, October 10 at Westford Town Common, a triangle between Main Street, Boston Road, and Lincoln Street.

In the spring of 2023, voters in Westford are scheduled to decide whether to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s a current example in a string of efforts in Massachusetts and elsewhere to get rid of public celebrations of Christopher Columbus.

But admirers of Columbus Day in Westford, who have so far staved off efforts to end it, are trying to rally support for it.

“For us in Westford I think it’s important to celebrate the holiday and bring it to the attention of the citizens of the town. I hope that they will walk away much better informed as to what the holiday is all about, its history, and why it’s important to keep this as part of our cultural heritage,” said Anthony DiLeo, a Westford resident and organizer of the Columbus Day event, in an interview with New Boston Post. “I don’t believe in tearing down our culture and the heritage that we’ve had for all these years. It’s important to maintain that because that’s who we are.”

Another organizer, Kathy Lynch, described the event as part of the fabric of America.

“We’re celebrating the federal holiday of Columbus Day that’s been enjoyed for many years by many people in our culture. And we’re going to hear from voices that appreciate the holiday,” said Lynch, a Westford resident and a member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee.

“This is not a right-left thing. It’s about America. There are people who are trying to erase America as we know it,” Lynch said.


Columbus Day and America – and Massachusetts

Christopher Columbus landed on an island in what is now called the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 – a Friday. He was the first European of the modern era to come to what is now known as the Americas, and his exploration enabled a series of mass migrations from Europe to what Europeans came to call the New World.

A Genoa native, Columbus sailed on behalf of Spain. That country’s colonization of much of the western hemisphere began with Columbus.

Columbus Day, which is celebrated on the second Monday in October, has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1971. But Americans have celebrated him as far back as the 17th century. The first national public holiday honoring Columbus’s landing in the Americas took place in 1892.

Columbus Day has been a state holiday in Massachusetts since 1910, when the legislature established it.

Admirers of Columbus note his courage and skill – he discovered the trade winds, and ventured farther west than any other sailor of his time had previously done. They also tout his interest in spreading Christianity and European culture.

Critics of Columbus decry his treatment of the Taino indigenous people he encountered, and they lay at his feet the transmission of European diseases and the conquests of indigenous peoples that followed, leading to widespread death and the destruction of local cultures.

Supporters of the holiday in his honor say that the discovery of the Americas (from a European point of view) led to the current western hemisphere civilizations, and should be celebrated. Some also note that Columbus was an Italian, and they say that Italian-American heritage should be honored.

Opponents of the holiday typically dislike Columbus and/or lament the coming of Europeans to the Americas. Some point out that Columbus never set foot in what is now the United States, and question why Americans should celebrate his voyage.

In Massachusetts, a current state statute makes Columbus Day a state holiday, “to the end that the memory of the courage, perseverance, and spiritual fervor of Christopher Columbus, discoverer of America, may be perpetuated.”

In recent decades left-of-center activists have sought to replace Columbus Day with a holiday celebrating indigenous people. Twenty-five of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts have declared an Indigenous Peoples Day, according to a web site that tracks it. At least six school systems have also done so.

Not on the web site’s list is Framingham, where the school committee decided in January 2019 to keep Columbus Day while adding indigenous peoples to the commemoration.

A bill currently before the Massachusetts Legislature would replace the state holiday known as Columbus Day with one called Indigenous Peoples Day – “to acknowledge the history of genocide and discrimination against Indigenous peoples, and to recognize and celebrate the thriving cultures and continued resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples and their tribal nations.”

The Indigenous Peoples Day bill (Massachusetts Senate Bill 2027 and Massachusetts House Bill 3191) got a hearing on September 16, 2021 from the legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight and a favorable report from the committee on July 13, 2022. But it has not come for a floor vote, and seems unlikely to get one this legislative session.


Columbus Day and Westford

In October 2020, Westford voters at Special Town Meeting narrowly rejected a citizen’s petition to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day locally.

Held during the coronavirus precautions, Town Meeting that day took place outside on the town high school’s football field, with social distancing.

Supporters said Columbus was a bad man who abused native peoples and enabled mistreatment of them by Europeans who followed him.

“It’s important to learn the whole story. The violence of Columbus and colonization should not be romanticized in history or honored with a holiday. Today is an opportunity for us to acknowledge the reality of our nation’s history, honor the longstanding contributions and identities of indigenous peoples, and fight for indigenous representation, equality, and justice,” said Chaitanya Hiremath, the petition’s sponsor, during Westford’s Special Town Meeting on October 20, 2020.

After his remarks, 15 people spoke on the resolution – nine against it, to keep Columbus Day, and six for it, to replace Columbus Day.

Opponents of the measure said the whole story actually favors Columbus, who they say was a largely good man, if imperfect, who generally sought to do the right thing and began a process that resulted in the spiritual and cultural elevation of both Europeans and native peoples.

Lynch, one of the organizers of the town’s Columbus Day celebration planned for this coming Monday, October 10, was one of the opponents of the measure two years ago. She acknowledged the harshness of the behavior of some of Columbus’s men – against his orders, she said. She also noted unsavory characteristics of the culture of some indigenous peoples in the Americas, including human sacrifice and cannibalism.

She called Columbus “a brave explorer and navigator.”

“While all human beings are imperfect, Columbus is being targeted and demonized while indigenous peoples are being glorified. This is imbalanced and unfair,” Lynch said during the October 2020 Town Meeting.

She said that “both Columbus and indigenous peoples have been blessed with many worthy attributes and actions,” and she suggested keeping Columbus Day and possibly creating a new holiday on another date celebrating indigenous peoples.

The indigenous-peoples-day measure failed at Westford Special Town Meeting, 108 to 111.

(Westford is not a right-leaning town, even by Massachusetts standards. In November 2020, voters in Westford went with Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 66.4 percent to 30.4 percent, which is a slightly higher margin than statewide (65.6 percent to 32 percent).)

After the Town Meeting vote was announced, Dennis Galvin, a town resident who is also a member of the Westford Republican State Committee, from the floor proposed a resolution to honor indigenous peoples in Westford on March 15, which is the birthday of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president.

Galvin noted that Jackson was a hero at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, but that as president he signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the moving of Indians from the American Southeast to what is now Oklahoma, a forced migration now known as the Trail of Tears.

Town Meeting opted to refer Galvin’s motion to the Westford Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, an advisory committee that reports to the town’s board of selectmen and school committee.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee studied the matter. In March 2022 the committee conducted an online survey of Westford residents, in which 64 percent of the 782 people who responded opposed getting rid of Columbus Day.

Even so, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee proposed a town bylaw that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. The proposal states:


The Westford Select Board shall annually declare the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, superseding local references to Columbus Day, and recommend that it be observed by the people of Westford, with appropriate exercises in the schools and otherwise, to acknowledge the history of genocide and discrimination against Indigenous peoples, and to recognize and celebrate the thriving cultures and continued resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples and their tribal nations.


(Westford’s board of selectmen started calling itself the “Select Board” in November 2020, after getting a special act approved by the state legislature to that effect.)

Selectmen discussed the proposed holiday name change with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee on August 23, 2022.

The board ultimately voted 4-0, with one abstention, to put the Columbus-Day-versus-Indigenous-Peoples-Day proposal to a townwide vote, which is now expected to take place at Westford’s annual town election, likely in May 2023.

The abstainer was J. Scott Hazelton, a selectman, who said he preferred a compromise that would honor both Columbus and indigenous peoples.

“Some significant portion of our residents understand completely the mistreatment of our Native Americans by – and in fact, just people worldwide. But they also recognize that there were some rather talented and brave individuals who were involved in the age of exploration, which we kind of personify under Columbus. So, it’s a recognition of the fact that there seem to be people who are open to having both days — in fact, would perhaps find it more inclusive to have both days. … You could have both on the same day, for that matter,” Hazelton said during the board of selectmen meeting August 23.

During the meeting, Galvin pointed out that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee never took up his resolution proposing to celebrate indigenous people on a date other than Columbus Day.

Scott Harkness, a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, said an up-or-down vote on Columbus Day at a townwide election is better than suggesting another date.

“The way the state is going is to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. If the town of Westford doesn’t want to change it, so be it. If they decide to have a different day, and keep Columbus Day, when the state changes it, which is probably going to happen, then we are going to stick out like a sore thumb, as a town that will not celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on Columbus Day. And I fear for that, and I think it’s just better whether to vote up or down whether to change it or not,” Harkness said.

Before the board’s vote, a woman whose name is not clear from the video of the meeting noted that Indigenous Peoples Day failed at Town Meeting and drew majority opposition from the online survey of residents. She asked what would happen if voters at the town election also reject it.

“At what point do we stop asking this question?” she said.


[Editor’s Note:  Since this story was originally published, the date of the event has been corrected to Monday, October 10, 2022, as has one misspelling of Westford.]

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