As a matter of state law, Monday is Columbus Day. Many Indigenous people and advocates, though, would like to see that change in the future.
Two Beacon Hill bills with broad support would instead proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. The legislation offers Massachusetts an opportunity to evolve beyond a painful insult to historic injury for Indigenous people, and instead embrace a holiday that honors and acknowledges foundational components of American history that have been long overlooked.
Some opponents to the proposed change fear it would rob Italian Americans of a key connection to their cultural heritage. The entirety of October is proclaimed Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month throughout the nation — a worthy testament to a rich cultural tradition that has indelibly shaped our country. Celebrating that deserves far better than strongly associating it with a brutal 15th-century campaign of human subjugation against the Indigenous peoples of places like the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Cuba.
Note that this list of places does not include “America,” as Christopher Columbus never set foot anywhere that would become the United States. Some argue that doing away with Columbus Day means obfuscating our nation’s history, though the holiday as it is named now has contributed to just that, embedding the apocryphal narrative of Columbus “discovering” America. He certainly never navigated anywhere near Massachusetts; the commonwealth’s history is far more intertwined with the Indigenous peoples who first called this land home. Proclaiming the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day in the Bay State would entail engaging with history, not shrouding it. Just as removing Confederate flags and statues from public buildings does not wipe away people’s knowledge of the Civil War, replacing Columbus Day would not erase historical awareness of a famed figure who sailed the ocean blue in 1492.
There is a group, however, who have seen their history and culture systematically threatened with erasure. For centuries, Indigenous people have disproportionately borne the bloody burden of expanding empire and the flawed unfurling of our collective American story. Forging a more perfect union, for which we are continually responsible, requires not erasing history but reckoning with it.
Those reluctant to rename Columbus Day should be heard with an open heart and mind. Columbus did not invent settler-colonialism and slavery, and he was far from the only historical figure who helped spread their destructive practices. And there is no disputing that his skills as a navigator and courage as an explorer shaped not just the history of the Age of Exploration but the development of the Western world — for better and worse. Still, we can be clear-eyed and honest about the totality of history while being judicious about which elements we choose to glorify.
In doing so, we ought to offer the same open hearts and minds when our Indigenous neighbors speak. You will hear fellow Americans and Bay Staters relate feelings of salt in an unhealed wound brought on by officially celebrating a man who colonized Caribbean islands for Spain while their own uniquely American history and culture remain marginalized. And if you listen for their voices and don’t hear so many, ponder why.
The full truth, no matter how painful, is necessary for the healing of reconciliation. We should follow the example of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Indians and Berkshire towns like Stockbridge and Sheffield, whose collaborative efforts lift up the history and culture of this land’s original inhabitants who never needed “discovering,” by Columbus or otherwise.
To be sure, changing the name of a single day — never mind the associated controversy — cannot undo the atrocities visited upon the people who first called Massachusetts home. Meaningfully grappling with that history is difficult, morally necessary and incomplete — though Indigenous people have been forced to reckon with it for centuries absent meaningful reconciliation with their fellow Americans in the process. We all must help change that, and perhaps Indigenous Peoples Day could be a modest start.