BOSTON (SHNS) – Less than a week before Massachusetts observes Columbus Day, lawmakers and Native American advocates, some wearing traditional headdresses, asked a legislative committee to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Proposals (H 2989 / S 1976) from Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville and Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton would require the governor to annually proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenous People Day rather than Columbus Day, with the goal of educating Bay Staters about the racism and violence that resulted from Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas. Twenty states and Washington, D.C. have already recognized the revamped day or call it Native American Day, Comerford told the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
“This holiday will be a great tribute to the contributions of Indigenous people in Massachusetts — past, present and future,” Comerford said at the hearing.
The legislation has been awaiting a hearing since mid-February, nearly eight months ahead of Columbus Day.
The legislation states that the day should be observed with “appropriate exercises,” including in schools, “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.”
Prior legislation to establish Indigenous Peoples Day was reported favorably out of the committee last session, though top Democrats in the House and Senate didn’t advance the proposals further.
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Jeffrey Turco of Winthrop indicated he supports the overarching concept of the new holiday. But Turco called the proposals an “unfortunate approach” to pit Native Americans against Italian Americans, who have used Columbus Day to honor the Italian explorer and their own culture.
“This bill basically disregards the contributions of Italian American people — it’s offensive to so many across this commonwealth,” said Turco, who suggested lawmakers should instead pass legislation enabling Native American tribes to reclaim their land.
Heather Leavell, co-founder of Italian Americans for Indigenous People Day and a second-generation Italian American, said her group represents hundreds of Massachusetts residents who are of Italian descent and support the state transitioning away from Columbus Day.
“We believe that a holiday that celebrates the resilience of the Indigenous people is far more truthful and uplifting for all residents of the commonwealth than one that honors a brutal, brutal colonizer,” she told the committee. “Indigenous people know their history, and we have listened to their voices, which together with mainstream scholarship and contemporary first-person accounts from Columbus and his sons, this reveals the truth of Columbus’s horrific acts of genocide. By rejecting Columbus Day, we acknowledge the history and the harm, and then we show our commitment to repair by replacing it with a celebration of Indigenous people.”
Massachusetts officials have not done enough to foster equity and inclusion, said Raquel Halsey, executive director of the North American Indian Center of Boston. Halsey recounted how students must grapple with Columbus Day assignments in school, such as dressing up as conquistadors or “concocted imaginings of what Indians must look like,” or answering questions about whether they would prefer to be colonizers or Indians.
“People don’t know that native people were systematically brutalized and enslaved by Columbus himself, and would go on to be forced into death camps on the Boston Harbor Islands, into residential schools across this country and Canada, starved and studied in the name of pseudo-scientific racism, and excluded from U.S. citizenship until 1924,” she said at the hearing. “People don’t that know, yet, we are still here.”