PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Christopher Columbus wasn't just a poor explorer, but also a horrible human being who should never have been honored in the first place, according to School Committee member Daniel Elias.
Elias joined in a unanimous vote on Wednesday to delete Columbus' name from the school calendar on the second Monday of October and replace it with Indigenous People's Day. The public holiday known as Columbus Day is slowly being replaced throughout the nation as history has now shown that not only was Columbus not the first person to discover America but he was also responsible for committing atrocities against the people who were living here when he arrived.
"Historians tell us a different story, a new truth. As a public educational institute, it is our civic responsibility to educate our nearly 5,600 students to the best of our ability. What we teach our students about our nation's history needs to be factual. It is long recognized by historians that Columbus did not discover America. The Native Americans were the first immigrants to North America and our country. They were followed by Leif Ericson and then Columbus, who we now know was the first to Europeanize what he though was India," School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said.
In 1992, Berkeley, Calif., first changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People Day. But it has only been in the last three or four years that the trend caught on. In 2016, the Massachusetts towns of Cambridge, Amherst, and Northampton all made the switch. As did the entire state of Vermont (which had never observed Columbus Day as a state holiday). Just this week, San Francisco made the switch.
"Indigenous People's Day is not only about a name change, it is a refusal to allow the genocide of millions of indigenous people go unnoticed and demand for recognition of indigenous humanity. Recognizing this day in place of what is the currently known as Columbus Day is a way to correct false histories," Taylor said.
The School Committee unanimously backed the switch, but member William Cameron showed some reservation. Cameron said he doesn't have a problem with removing Columbus' name from the holiday, citing that only Martin Luther King, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln have public holidays in their name and Columbus doesn't reach that level of impact on the nation, but rather the replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
"I don't think removing Columbus' name ought to be a matter of great controversy. What troubles me about this is the identification of a specific nationality or ethnic group as deserving their own recognition," Cameron said.
Cameron said Americans seem to be dividing among class, race, and other differences. He said people are more and more identifying by their separation rather than commonalities. He fears furthering that by creating public holidays for every ethnic group.
"We don't have any ethnic denoted public holidays.St. Patrick's Day is not a public holiday, we don't have an Irish Day, we don't have a Polish Day or Ukrainian Day which is a public holiday. We don't have a public holiday for the people who came from Africa and were enslaved for 250 years and then suffered under Jim Crow and various kinds of racial discrimination legally for over 100 years after. We don't have any designation for any of those. This is a new thing. Having a public holiday that celebrates one particular group of people is one that makes me very uneasy," Cameron said.
"I think it is well intended and this is a very local move. But I would be very concerned if this sentiment became national where we begin celebrating the cultures of people who came to a society where they were supposed to subscribe not to their ethnic nation but to a constitutional nation."
Member Dennis Powell, who is also the president of the local NAACP chapter, slightly disagrees. He said many of the accomplishments and impacts various cultures made on the country's history have been buried over time. He said telling a true history and celebrating those accomplishments outweighs the concern that every culture will want a holiday.
"We also have to keep in mind who they actually were. We think all black people in America were slaves. That's not true because there were black people here before slaves came here. In fact, they were the indigenous people. When you look at this, I think it is more important to me that we give recognition. It has got to start somewhere. There has to be some identification or truth of real history," Powell said. "I'm hoping what comes out of this is actual instruction in the history being taught."
Chairwoman Katherine Yon said the change in holiday will emphasize the positive impact indigenous people had on this nation.
"There has always been an attitude where we honor conquerors, with all this suppression, violence and bloodshed that goes along with it, and the arrogance that conquerors are somehow better than the people that they are fighting. And that's the idea, I think, we have to get rid of. Indigenous people have so much to offer but there has always been this idea of the conqueror over the victims," Yon said.
City Councilor Peter White didn't know the proper history of Columbus until he went to college. He called a move such as this one that is "long overdue."
"Teaching our children real history instead of fairy tale history is important," White said. "I would have rather learned the history from the beginning rather than waiting until I was a history major in college."
Taylor said Columbus started the Europeanization of the United States, which led to the killing of thousands of Native Americans. She said the changing of the holiday in no way detracts from the Italian American immigrants who moved to the country.
"The Europeanization of America led to the largest genocide in our nation's history. There were over 300 unarmed Native American men, women, and children killed at Wounded Knee alone," Taylor said.
Resident Drew Herzig said the move isn't "about erasing history. It is about affirming history." While resident Michael Bushey added that this change should be made as well as changing the Taconic High School moniker from The Braves.
"If you are going to do one, you should probably address the other one first," Bushey said.
School Committee member Joshua Cutler added that he doesn't want the name change to just be a gesture. He wants it to be a "teachable moment" in the schools.
"The biggest thing I keep coming back to is teachable moments. If we are going to go forward and support this tonight, we really need to take advantage of this and incorporate it into the curriculum so that our students fully grasp why exactly we have this day off," Cutler said. "We need to use it as a teachable moment so we will make more of an impact."
The day will still be a holiday, and Superintendent Jason McCandless double checked to make sure there were no legal impacts with the collective bargaining agreements that state employees get the day of, but will be recognized differently. Instead of getting the day off that October weekend to remember how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered a new world, now the holiday, at least in Pittsfield schools, will recognize how Columbus had no idea where he was and just started colonizing the land and killing those who were here first.
"Not only was he a poor explorer. He was, as a man, a pretty horrible human being. There is no honor in that," Elias said.
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