Pittsfield Schools Hold Ground on Indigenous Peoples Day
The committee took a moral stand back in January that Christopher Columbus was not someone to be celebrated and vowed to teach the true history of the man and the atrocities for which he was responsible.
And with that, they stripped the name off the holiday on the second Monday in October and renamed it in honor of the people whose cultures were destroyed because of his actions.
"I feel a deep sadness for what was lost, a culture that was lost, a society that was destroyed," Mayor Linda Tyer said. "I want to be a person who repairs past wrongs. I want to be a person that doesn't accept profound injustice."
The Italian-American community in the Berkshires, and elsewhere, don't feel that is what the holiday represents. Columbus, to them, was the person who paved the way toward infusing Italian culture into the Americas. To them, he brought science, math, art, music, and new civilization to the New World.
"It is a federal holiday and is a symbol of immigrant, exploration, discovery, building, and development," Marietta Rapetti Cawse said. (Though a federal holiday, it is not observed in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont.)
The local Italian-American groups came in numbers to multiple meetings following the change to voice their outrage. The numbers were overwhelming with close to 50 on one side of the City Council chambers Wednesday night in opposition to the School Committee's actions and about a dozen on the other side backing the decision.
"It is a celebration of Italians in my eye," said longtime Italian teacher Toni Tobin.
The Italian-Americans one by one challenged that the School Committee was attempting to erase his, and Italian, contributions to America. They took it as an insult.
"We do feel disparaged by this vote being taken," said Maryann Sherman.
School Committee member William Cameron, however, gave a lengthy response, saying he couldn't stand perpetuating a "mythical" Columbus. Point by point, he refuted the numerous arguments the Italian-American groups made and told true history of who Columbus was -- from rape, to murder, to genocide. He said Columbus brought a culture of genocide and slavery to the Americas that led to the deaths of 90 percent of the indigenous population. He said he couldn't let the excuse that "they all did it" at that time be allowed for the city to turn a blind eye to moral wrongs Columbus perpetuated.
"It is my place as a member of the Pittsfield School Committee to do all I can to ensure this city's young people get a sound education, which means that it be truthful," Cameron said.
Cameron said Columbus was a mercenary for Spain and that his actions had no bearing on the impact Italian-Americans have made in American life. But the "mythical" Columbus gets the credit for that. He said keeping Columbus Day as a holiday continues burying the truth.
School Committee member Daniel Elias was a little more moderate. He said he recognizes mostly the effects the Knights of Columbus and other Italian groups have made over the years and how the Italians have connected with the historical figure.
"I recognize, on one end, the individual himself and, on the other end, the tie-in Italians have with him," Elias said.
But this whole debate made him realize the atrocities Columbus was responsible for and when it comes to his vote, Elias said the person Columbus was far outweighed the contributions Italian-Americans feel he represents.
"Knowing what I know, I can't support leaving the name Columbus on it," Elias said.
The only School Committee member to voice favor of reversing the decision was Joshua Cutler. Cutler was out of town for Wednesday's meeting but had a statement read by School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon. Cutler had voted in favor of the change originally, but his statement was in favor of returning to Columbus Day.
His statement said that while there is much historical evidence to support the School Committee's decision, he found a significant number of Pittsfield residents opposed to the move. He felt, as an elected body, to follow the "pulse of the community."
"I would rather respect the wishes of the people in my community than be a crusader for change at this time," Cutler wrote.
City Councilor Anthony Simonelli had a similar stance. Simonelli has been in opposition to the change and had submitted a petition asking the City Council to oppose the School Committee's decision. He feels the move has "fractured" the community. He thinks there should be another time to honor indigenous people, such as Aug. 9, which is International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.
"I think it is time to begin the healing process of the city. I think the city is split," Simonelli said.
But for Drew Herzig and Michael Vincent Bushey, the significant amount of opposition is even more reason for the School Committee to hold its ground.
"You are providing moral leadership in the city that is so desperately needed," Herzig said, adding, "Healing comes after the truth."
Herzig said it is a "bitter pill" to swallow to truly recognize injustices and slavery but condemning it is the right thing to do. Bushey echoed a similar sentiment, saying the committee is "on the right side of history."
"We're going to look back at this moment. It is a moment when you are standing up for what's right and we're standing behind you," he said.
The issue has been contentious. Nick Marshall teaches American history and specializes in memorialization at Marist College. He said memorialization becomes particularly difficult when it comes to Columbus.
Back in the 1950s, there was a focus on Americanization and assimilation following World War II. But in the 1980s, things started to switch.
"We are at a period of history when people are really concerned about identity," Marshall said, adding, "Somehow we feel we don't know ourselves unless we know where we came from. And that is something that has changed over American history."
That is playing out in debates throughout the country. He cited a number of similar examples from the Confederate flag to Laura Ingalls Wilder having her name taken off a literature award because of her descriptions of Native Americans, to Faneuil Hall being considered for renaming because its namesake Peter Faneuil was a slave trader.
"History does change. There isn't a single narrative that exists and will always exist," he said.
That emotional pull of what the symbol means to individuals make these conversations more difficult.
"You're going to get criticized when you try to make any of those changes on this level," Marshall said.
Revisionist history isn't something to be frowned upon, he said, but rather a good thing as history is made more clear from new documents and understanding. He said a holiday like Martin Luther King Day would never have been considered years ago but now, Americans recognize its value.
When it comes to Columbus Day, things get trickier, he said. He said Columbus Day is a very American holiday, unlike others such as St. Patrick's Day. He said Columbus was an integral part of the story of the United States.
"There are contributions that Columbus made to the settlement and New World but, of course, he was working for the interest of the Spanish," Marshall said.
Columbus had numerous flaws and reading his own journals shows the terrible beliefs he had. At the same time, Marshall questioned whether the Washington Monument would be taken down because Washington was a slave owner.
Essentially, the question boils down to weighing the contribution of the individual to American history versus the negatives of that person.
For Italian-Americans, Columbus contributed greatly and his atrocities were more a sign of the times than an individual with a lapse in morality. They see Columbus as a symbol for their heritage. But for Native Americans, that holiday is a constant reminder of a culture of murder, slavery, and genocide that arrived with Columbus sailing the ocean blue.
For School Committee member Dennis Powell, president of the local NAACP, teaching the true history of Columbus supersedes the symbol he has become to the Italian community. He said the history he was taught was a revised history of Columbus and that Pittsfield schools should not continue to honor that.
"Teaching real history is paramount to their strong development as citizens," Powell said.
Meanwhile, School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said the schools work hard to teach students and staff to recognize and respect people's differences and Columbus isn't the right kind of role model for that.
"Christopher Columbus is an absolute bully. That's not who we want our children to look up to," Taylor said.
The seven-month conversation may have divided a community but nonetheless, it also triggered a deeper discussion on history and morality.
Tags: holiday, Italian, Pittsfield Public Schools,
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