Christopher Columbus/ Credit: Library of Congress

Needham has become the latest community to consider whether a holiday that celebrates Christopher Columbus is good public policy.

The Select Board dedicated 25 minutes of its meeting this week to a public hearing  on a proposal for three possible courses of action on the holiday: to continue to observe the second Monday in October as Columbus Day; to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day;  to recognize that date as Indigenous People’s Day and also establish a celebration of Italian American Heritage Day (or Month).

In recent years, the holiday has come under scrutiny due to concerns over the devastating impact of European colonization on North America’s indigenous populations. These concerns led the Select Board to create a goal to evaluate the town’s approach to marking the holiday.

Town staff conducted a study of 20 peer and neighboring communities and found that nine had acted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, while three had created a combined recognition of both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day. Eight deliberated and decided not to alter Columbus Day.

At the outset of the hearing, Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley offered a brief historical overview of Columbus Day, which became a national holiday in 1937. 

“1892 was the first declaration in the United States of the holiday related to Columbus Day,” said Cooley. “It was not linked to Columbus as a person. It was really with the intent of celebrating the hard work of American people and how far the country had come.”

This was a tacit acknowledgement that the legacy of Columbus himself and his prominent role in the nascent transatlantic slave trade is highly problematic for many.

“He is likely not everybody’s favorite emissary for the cause,” Cooley acknowledged before opening the hearing to public comment.

Multiple speakers described the proposal as an example of “cancel culture” in action, while others saw it as an attempt to reflect history more fully.

“It’s not a good road to go down when you start changing history,” cautioned Daniel Socci, a lifelong Needhamite whose father emigrated from Italy. “Who wouldn’t be in favor of an Indigenous People’s Day? But I wouldn’t cancel one for the other one.”

Kerry Hurwitch, a member of the town’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), suggested it would not be a matter of changing history but rather acknowledging it.

“We are proposing replacing the name of the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous People’s Day,” she said, speaking on behalf of the HRC.

“Celebrating Columbus and others who were like him dismisses the devastating losses experienced by the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere in the past and the ongoing effects of colonialism today.”

Residents Mike Gallagher and Jeffrey Heller both advocated retaining the Columbus Day tradition of honoring the contribution of Italian Americans and also having a distinct commemoration on behalf of indigenous people.

Perhaps the strongest denunciation of the Columbus legacy came from resident Doug Fox. “We’re talking about genocide,” Fox said.  “What he represents to indigenous people, it is so toxic. … It’s the wrong type of history.”

“Columbus inspired me and many other Italians to come here to the United States,” said Socci’s wife, Maria, who immigrated from Italy. “It is not toxic.”

The final public comments came from Amber Autumn Sun Orlando, a member of the Praying Indians of Natick who also serves on the Select Board’s committee working on a new town seal.

“My family and myself descend from the very people that, if you dug down deep, are below where you stand right now,” she said. “The amount of pride the Italian Americans have should be honored. That’s something that is beautiful. But it’s the name ‘Columbus’ that it’s tied to.”

She described Columbus as “a man that was cruel and unfortunately has more bad than good that is tied to his name.”

“To have a day to [celebrate] someone who has a history of doing horrific things, not only to native people but plenty of other people, it hurts,” she said.

The Select Board closed the hearing, but welcomed the public to submit further comments in writing before its next meeting on Dec. 5, when the board is expected to vote on the proposal.

How should the town mark the second Monday in October?
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