Westford Selectmen Delete Columbus Day In Favor Of Indigenous Peoples Day

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2023/07/10/westford-selectmen-delete-columbus-day-in-favor-of-indigenous-peoples-day/

Westford selectmen have opted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day — but most of them don’t seem too happy about it.

Several members of the town’s highest board showed reluctance to ditch Columbus Day during a recent public meeting. But the board ultimately voted 4-1 to do it.

Columbus Day, which commemorates the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus made landfall on an island in the Caribbean, is celebrated in the United States on the second Monday in October.

Supporters of ditching Columbus Day say Columbus is an improper subject for a holiday because his actions led to the European colonization of the Americas and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples, including subjugation and large numbers of deaths. They say that indigenous peoples should be celebrated instead of Columbus.

Supporters of keeping Columbus Day say that Columbus was a brave explorer whose purported misdeeds against the indigenous peoples are overstated and that the coming of Europeans to the Americas was actually a good thing. They also say that Columbus, who was originally from Genoa, is rightly considered a hero by many Italian-Americans.

The recommendation to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in Westford came from the town’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, an advisory committee to the board of selectmen, and the Westford School Committee, which oversees the town’s public schools.

In late May, Westford residents narrowly voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in a non-binding townwide referendum, 1,065 to 1,050 — a margin of 15 votes.

Selectmen, who set policies and oversee the town government’s day-to-day affairs, had the chance to either implement the change or keep the status quo during the board’s meeting on Tuesday, June 27

Westford residents had previously expressed the desire to keep Columbus Day in place. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee held a poll in 2022, in which 63.94 percent of voters answered “No” to the question, “Do you support changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October?” In October 2020, during Westford Town Meeting, which functions as the legislature of the town, residents voted against a proposal to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Even so, in March 2023, town selectmen approved the wording of a Columbus Day ballot question, in a unanimous vote.

The advisory ballot question was worded so that voting “Yes” would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, while voting “No” would keep Columbus Day. There was no option to preserve Columbus Day while celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day another day of the year — an idea that drew support from several speakers, including some selectmen, during the board meeting on June 27.

At one point, Selectman John Cunningham asked Joe Diamond, a co-chairman of the town’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, why Columbus Day had to go, and why both can’t be celebrated.

“I think that you had a target and your target was Columbus Day,” Cunningham said. “I’m all for Indigenous Peoples Day; I’m not so much in favor of saying it’s gotta be this or that. I think it could be both.”

Selectman Scott Hazelton made a similar point later in the meeting, suggesting that both Columbus and indigenous peoples have unique perspectives in history that should be recognized.

“That’s not what we’ve done,” Hazleton said.

Diamond later responded by saying that the town’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee did consider placing Indigenous Peoples Day some other day, but did not identify a particular alternative date.

“We didn’t go deep into the discussion,” Diamond said, “because, ultimately, we decided, based on all the feedback — and actually connecting with indigenous peoples’ organizations — that that was the important day for them.”

“We understand that it’s an important day for indigenous people, this particular day itself,” he continued.

Diamond did not respond to a request for clarification from NewBostonPost as to what makes the second Monday of October an important day for indigenous peoples.

During the meeting, Diamond challenged the argument that replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is an attempt to rewrite history. He said that in discussions with the school committee, the point was made that replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day “actually shines a new light on history. And it gives anybody an opportunity to really examine in a critical way, in a nuanced way, that era in history. So it doesn’t ignore, it doesn’t obliterate.”

Hazelton disagreed, however.

When you preclude one side of a discussion, you obliterate that side from the discussion. That’s just common sense,” Hazelton said.

Yet when Cunningham later offered an amendment to strike the words “superseding local references to Columbus Day” from the original motion, his proposed amendment was not seconded by any of the other four selectmen.

The chairman of the board of selectmen, Thomas Clay, said during the meeting that he sees his role “as enacting the will of the people of Westford.”

“Yes, it’s an advisory,” Clay said in reference to the townwide vote in May, “but I’m trying to imagine a situation where an elected body doesn’t respect the word of the public and says, ‘We know better.’ I just can’t imagine that. That doesn’t sound like democracy to me.”

Clay did not make his personal opinion of Columbus Day clear and did not respond to a subsequent request for comment by New Boston Post.

Hazelton and fellow selectman Chris Barrett said they thought the will of the majority of voters should be respected, but they also said that the question voters were asked to consider on was poorly worded.

“I think town meeting voters were given a poor choice of options,” Barrett said.

Addressing Diamond, the co-chairman of the town’s Diversity, Equity, Ind inclusion committee, Barrett said:  “It doesn’t sound like you really took into account comments from the other side of the conversation.”

Diamond responded that the working group looked at all sides of the discussion. “Certainly, the results were mixed, the vote was close, but we did take this very seriously,” Diamond said.

New Boston Post contacted Barrett for comment in late June. In an email message, Barrett said:  “As a Select Board member my vote last night reflected the direction provided by the majority of people that voted on that ballot question.”

(The town’s selectmen refer to the board as “Select Board” in a nod to gender-neutral language.)

But Barrett also reiterated an opinion he offered at the meeting, that the town’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee should have proposed a more inclusive recommendation, especially considering the survey that found most Westford residents wanted to keep Columbus Day in place.

“As a committee that is supposed to be looking at inclusive and equitable solutions providing an option that results in an outcome where one group wins over another does not seem to be equitable or inclusive to me,” Barrett said.

Several Westford residents have expressed displeasure at replacing the holiday. Westford resident Kathy Lynch, a member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, told New Boston Post before the June 27 meeting that she thought she’d see a compromise but was surprised none appeared.

“I thought the DEI committee would work out an equitable recommendation,” Lynch said by email, “something like keeping a separate day to celebrate each Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. That would be fair and equitable. That would show inclusiveness of Indigenous Peoples, Italians, Catholics, and people who love America and its history — history with its good and bad parts that we all can learn from while aiming not to repeat the bad parts.”

Another resident, Anthony DiLeo, who served as master of ceremonies for a Columbus Day celebration on Westford Town Common last October, during the June 27 meeting, urged the selectmen to preserve the holiday, while appealing for unity.

“We invite you to be bold and not to accept the recommendation as it is currently written,” DiLeo told the selectmen, referring to the recommendation of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee to ditch Columbus Day.

Celebrating both holidays, DiLeo said, “will help unify our community instead of dividing it in half.”

Earlier, DiLeo said that Columbus Day was created “to commemorate the discrimination, the persecution, and the murder of Italians in the late 19th century.”

“The question before us tonight is not a question that is written in the ballot. The question before us tonight is whether persecution and discrimination of any one group should supersede that of another group,” DiLeo said.

Several speakers, including Hazelton, praised Columbus as someone worthy of a holiday.

What’s amazing to me is not that Columbus found the New World,” Hazelton said. “Anybody sailing east would have found it. What’s amazing is that he got back.”

“I don’t think we should lose sight of these facts, in spite of the fact that his successors were, in some cases, outright tyrants,” he said.

During public comment, DiLeo said most people recognize Columbus for his accomplishments.

“Within 25 years of Columbus’s first voyage, the crown of Spain had to figure out how to deal with the Natives they were engaged with. They developed and accepted a policy that said, ‘All men, including the Native Indians, should be granted full human rights.’ Where did you ever hear that before?” DiLeo said.

In the end, Cunningham was the lone selectman to vote against ditching Columbus Day. The other four voted in favor of getting rid of it.

Westford is a town of about 24,000 people about 25 miles northwest of Boston.

Monday, October 9, 2023, is scheduled to be the town’s first Indigenous Peoples Day.


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