Monday, May 6 2019 Town Meeting in Marblehead

At the May 6th, 2019 Marblehead Town Meeting, the Town voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Background information as of February 2019:

A group of Marblehead citizens has come together, after attending a presentation by Mahtowin Munro, to propose that Marblehead rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  We have successfully obtained enough signatures of residents and submitted a petition to the Board of Selectmen.

Letter to the Editor

Dear Marblehead,

Last October I attended a speaking event at the UU Church with my family and it really made an impression on me.  The presenter was a Native American woman named Mahtowin Munro. She is the Co-leader of the United American Indians of New England and the lead organizer for and she explained the reasons behind the movement to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  She spoke about the violence that Columbus was involved in (she explained she was leaving out some of the more upsetting details because there were children in the audience), the fact that he didn’t actually discover America, and she explained how the Indigenous People of this land have been poorly treated by the Europeans since their arrival.  I have had a growing unease with this holiday for a number of years and I left her presentation wondering how it was possible that we have celebrated this holiday for so long. And I knew I wanted to do something about it. I think that Marblehead should join the movement to officially change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

There are many other states and towns across the country that have already made this change.  The states of South Dakota, Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont and Oregon have all replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  It has also been embraced by other towns in Massachusetts including Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Northampton, Amherst, Brookline, and North Andover. Currently there is a movement in Wellesley to adopt this change as well. When Somerville decided to change the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day the Mayor, Joe Curtatone, wrote “Columbus Day is a relic of an outdated and oversimplified version of history…. As an Italian-American it feels good that there is an official holiday that is nominally about us.  We are proud of our heritage. Yet the specifics of this holiday run so deep into human suffering that we need to shift our pride elsewhere.”

Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937.  This was due in large part to the lobbying efforts of the Roman Catholic Italian population, in particular the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic Fraternity).  It had been celebrated for many years before that as a state holiday and by some as a celebration of Italian-American heritage and pride. (I want to be clear that I am not opposed to celebrating Italian-American heritage, and I know there are more positive aspects of Italian heritage to be proud of and to celebrate.)

This holiday was created to celebrate the arrival of Columbus in America.  But who is this a celebration for? Certainly not the native people who were living in the Bahamas, where his ships first landed.  In the ship’s log Columbus wrote about the Arawaks: They were well built, with good bodies and handsome features…They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.  Columbus went on to capture, murder and enslave the Arawak Indians.  The level of cruelty was so atrocious that the Arawaks eventually resorted to mass suicide and infanticide just to escape from it.  A young Spanish priest named Bartolome de Las Casas eventually spoke out against the cruelty, writing “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write…”  We can do better than having a holiday that celebrates the conquest, death, and enslavement of Indigenous People.

I realize that some people may see this as an attempt to rewrite history.  I would argue that for the most part we have been taught a harmfully incomplete version of history – a very Eurocentric view – that has ignored the violence inflicted on the Native Americans while creating a hero out of the man whose greed led him to terrorize, murder and enslave them.  It’s time to accept a more complete version of history. Hopefully with perspective and education we can make a choice to honor the Indigenous people who inhabited this land before Europeans colonized it. This is not a rewriting of history, it is simply a refocusing of our attention to recognize the original inhabitants of this land instead of the man whose “discovery” brought death and destruction to their culture.

The land that we inhabit now as Marblehead was once tribal land, but for the most part I don’t think many of us think about that.  Could you name the tribe that lived here before it was colonized by Europeans? Could your children? There is a rich Native American history here, but because we have been taught a one sided version of history, the perspective of the Indigenous People has largely been ignored.  It is time for that to change and adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an important step. I hope that Marblehead will vote to approve this change at town meeting.


Leah Bokenkamp