Jan. 19, 2021—The Select Board Tuesday placed an article to locally change the holiday on the second Monday in October from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day” on the 2021 town meeting warrant.
The unanimous decision followed a presentation by residents Claudia Fox Tree and Heather Leavell. Fox Tree is a member of the Arawak Nation, while Leavell is a co-founder of Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day.
While there was not a full public hearing, Joseph Piantedosi and John O’Connor expressed an opposing view. Both spoke to the anti-Italian history in America.
Leavell began, recounting Columbus’s brutal history. She spoke to what indigenous people have done for Bedford, saying that “Bedford is located on the traditional unseated lands of the Massachusett tribe.”
Leavell also noted the pain that the celebration of Columbus Day causes for indigenous children, while making other children ignorant of the atrocities committed by Columbus. Citing the Reclaiming Native Truth Initiative, she also noted the connotations that Native Americans hold now, either invisible or seen as uncivilized.
Leavell brought up the surge in support for indigenous peoples. While it is happening on a municipal level in towns throughout Massachusetts, the state has also been making strides to pay respects.
She shared words from Faries Gray, sagamore of the Massachusett Nation: “Columbus Day for us is a constant reminder that the genocide and atrocities committed by the early colonists is not only accepted but celebrated. Bedford is the ancestral land of the Massachusett tribe — why not celebrate this?”
The change is supported by Bedford Embraces Diversity, the Parent Diversity Council, and School Superintendent Philip Conrad, Leavell said. She added that the change would be in line with the Select Board’s growing emphasis on diversity in town.
Leavell addressed her Italian-American connection to Columbus Day. “I certainly empathize with Italian-Americans who feel that renaming the day means the loss of the hard-fought acknowledgment that we deserve to be in this country,” she said. “But we’re in a very different place today. Our culture is now celebrated… and we feel that we have the responsibility now to use the platform we have to make sure we are not repeating the same patterns of discrimination our ancestors did.”
Fox Tree commented, “When we remember the names of three ships that landed in the Caribbean more than the names of the people who changed the world, we are participating in actively making indigenous people’s contributions and history invisible.”
She went on to recount her personal experiences as a member of the Arawak Nation and discuss how Columbus created the negative connotation of Native Americans. She also made note of how our country continues to see indigenous people in a negative light, citing the movie Pocahontas which refers to indigenous people as “barely human.”
Margot Fleischman of the Select Board applauded the presenters for bringing the issue to the public eye. She added that in most records of Bedford’s history, indigenous people are not present even though they are such a large part of the town’s history.
Select Board member Emily Mitchell expressed her support, noting the ignorant messaging that many Bedford youth receive in elementary schools around indigenous issues. Member Bopha Malone also gave her support, saying that “I think it’s important that our community experience the struggles and experiences of others.”
Bill Moonan of the Select Board noted the history around Columbus but also the Italian- American relation to the holiday. He also brought up the idea of using a different title for the day, though Town Manager Sarah Stanton said that it would be impossible to change the warrant as proposed.
Board Chair Ed Pierce noted that, while Bedford could change the name of the holiday, state and national media will continue to refer to it as “Columbus Day.” Leavell said change on a state or federal level will happen slowly and Bedford should make the change that it can.
Piantedosi, a former selectman, told the board, “The origins of Columbus Day had very little to do with the man, Christopher Columbus.” He said he supported creating a holiday to commemorate indigenous people. However, he did not want it to come at the cost of removing a day of Italian pride.
Piantedosi pointed to Colorado as an example, where Columbus Day has been replaced with Cabrini Day, celebrating Italian nun Frances Xavier Cabrini.
O’Connor recounted his personal family history as an Italian-American. “Italians were the lowest rung on the social ladder,” O’Connor said.