Pittsfield School Committee to Reconsider Indigenous Peoples Day
The School Committee in January voted to make the change on the school calendar. But, that brought out the ire of the Italian-American community who showed up in numbers at both this week's City Council meeting and School Committee meeting.
Local Italian groups agree that Columbus was a controversial figure but they also said he was accomplished and made a huge impact on the world. They feel eliminating the holiday is an insult to their Italian heritage.
"Regardless of which textbook you believe, Christopher Columbus deserves to be honored, deserves to be debated," said Marietta Rapetti Cawse.
Cawse suggested that there be a different holiday to honor indigenous peoples as well as keeping Columbus Days.
"Yes, it is important to recognize indigenous natives and their own holiday. But please re-enstate Columbus Day," she said.
Maryann Sherman said Columbus was responsible for bringing European culture to the New World more than any other explorer. She said he brought arts and sciences to the Americas and she denies critics who say Columbus was responsible for committing genocide. The day is to celebrate all of the contributions Italians have brought to America, she said.
School Committee member Cynthia Taylor, who proposed the change, said she did so not thinking it was considered an Italian holiday. She said she never knew Columbus Day as such a holiday but saw it as a day to honor someone who was proclaimed to have discovered America.
"I don't know a single soul who linked Columbus Day to Italians," Taylor said. "My intention was never in any way to take anything away from your proud Italian heritage."
Taylor apologized to the members of the Itam, CHAO, Unico, and the Italian American clubs who felt the change was an insult to their culture. She wanted to change the name of the holiday to "set the record straight" about the discovery of America.
Chairwoman Katherine Yon echoed that sentiment, saying she didn't think the renaming of the holiday would have caused an issue.
"We probably should have had more foresight. We did not," Yon said.
However, some of the committee members are standing by their decision. School Committee member Daniel Elias detailed the iconoclastic moment he had when he asked a Native American friend what they were doing for the holiday. They responded they don't celebrate it. Elias then began taking a deeper look into the history and realized Columbus wasn't somebody he felt should be honored. That was a change for him, who grew up thinking of Columbus as an American hero and remember clearly taking photos of himself with a statue of the explorer.
"To me, when I look back and read numerous accounts even from his own men about horrific behavior toward the Indians. I just think it is well documented," Elias said. "To me, it is hard to celebrate a holiday for something like that."
Resident Drew Herzig also spoke in favor of eliminating Columbus Day. But, it wasn't so much focused on what Columbus did or did not do but rather what Columbus represents to Native Americans. He said the holiday is a constant reminder to Native Americans about the horrors their ancestors went through at the hands of colonists.
"It is not about the individual but about the symbolism. The symbolism of Columbus Day is a daily offense to Native Americans," Herzig said.
Michael Bushey is both Italian and Native American. He said there are always reminders of his Italian heritage but none of his Native American. He said indigenous people need more than just a holiday, but this change to the school calendar is a little motion that goes in that direction.
"Their values and customs have been folded into the fabric of our society. There is no longer a need for a separate day to celebrate Italian-American heritage because it is American heritage. Indigenous people have not been given that opportunity," Bushey said.
School Committee Dennis Powell, a member of the NAACP, understands how difficult the conversation is. He said many of the indigenous people were black and he considers himself more closely related to them than African-Americans. He said that history has been mostly erased as well as all of the accomplishments they made. He added that they lost their land while Italians still have Italy just as the Irish still have Ireland, and the Greeks still have Greece.
"I want all children in our school system to understand the values of all of the cultures for contributions made here in America. In order to do that, history is going to have to take a complete change. We are going to have to take what is actually recorded, the real history, the hard history, and start teaching it to our children if the world is going to be improved," Powell said.
He added, "at some point, we have to take a stand about history."
Mayor Linda Tyer sees both sides of the argument. She said people like Columbus did contribute greatly but at the same time did things that weren't worth celebrating. The argument that the committee was now using 21st-century laws and morals to judge a 15th-century event gave her more to think about.
"It is important to learn from both aspects of those historical figures," she said.
Nonetheless, for now, the school calendar will read "Indigenous Peoples Day" but the School Committee will continue the discussion and could change it back to "Columbus Day."
Tags: holiday, Pittsfield Public Schools,
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