Annual town meeting Saturday afternoon approved by voice vote a resolution that changes the name of the holiday that falls on the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
The outcome culminated months of grassroots organization by an ad hoc committee of residents. Their proposal was endorsed by the Select Board as well as by the School Committee and Board of Library Trustees; the latter two already have changed their 20-22 calendar designations.
Scattered opposition to the proposal Saturday primarily was based on Columbus Day’s history as a day to celebrate Italian-American Heritage. Those points were countered by three speakers who said they are of Italian lineage but still support the change.
Statements proceeded for 30 minutes, including an unsuccessful attempt to move the question after 21 minutes.
The brief resolution, which only affects Bedford, declares that the name change honors “the resilience and contributions of Indigenous peoples in our Town, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and our country.”
The declaration also encourages “appropriate exercises and instruction to acknowledge the history of genocide and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, and to recognize and celebrate the thriving cultures, diversity, and history of Indigenous Peoples.”
There were a few objections to the lead-up to the resolution — the “whereas” paragraphs.
“Columbus’s voyages to the New World were ones of conquest, and his governorship of the Caribbean instituted systemic policies of slavery and extermination of Indigenous populations,” according to the second paragraph,
Later, it reads that the town “recognizes and acknowledges the ongoing trauma historical harms, acts of genocide, and violations of human rights caused by Christopher Columbus and the legacy of European colonization.”
But former Selectman Joe Piantedosi labeled those assertions “totally false.” Columbus, he said, “loved Indigenous people,” and even adopted a child. He added that Columbus’s goal was to baptize Indigenous people, which would preclude them from enslavement.
Piantedosi presented a history of Columbus Day in the United States, launched in response to anti-Italian violence and discrimination in the late 19th century. The day is a celebration of Italian-American achievements and pride. Italian-Americans still suffer from bigotry in this country, he added.
But Seth Cargiulo recounted his immigrant family history of hard work and service to the country, and added, “Christopher Columbus was not like my family. He was here for the money” engaging in “violence and tyranny to gain wealth and power.”
John Mitchell, the final speaker before the vote, pointed out that many other immigrant groups have suffered from discrimination and bigotry, but none of them has a public holiday of recognition. Native Americans, however, have been victims of genocide for 500 years, “under the cover of law.”
There were a few other speakers in opposition. Lucille Wilson alleged factual errors in the rationale for the resolution and wanted them corrected before adoption.
Armen Zildjian stated that the town shouldn’t recognize one group while excluding another, and supporters should choose another day. Italian-Americans were persecuted and marginalized, even in Bedford. He said long-time residents of his Hartwell Road neighborhood have told him they were considered living on “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Sean Gibson called for an alternative that specifically recognizes Massachusetts tribes and their culture. Terry Traub said the resolution is an example of “momentary political correctness or sense of guilt.” He said, “Political correctness is a disease that is rotting the soul of our country.”
Heather Leavell and Anne Caron, the drivers of the successful campaign, opened the speaking. The glorification of Columbus is a source of pain to Indigenous people, Leavell said, and this renaming is “a source of acknowledgment and repair.” She added that she is among the Italian-Americans who support it.
Caron cited teachings by resident Claudia Fox Tree, a long-time educator on Native American culture and history and a member of the Arawak people, whose ancestors were victimized in the Caribbean. Caron said Columbus was “a man whose atrocities were condemned in his time.” She called for celebrating the histories, cultures, and land stewardship of the Indigenous.
Erin McCormack added that supporters worked with and were guided by Native groups in the region. She noted that 16 Massachusetts towns already have approved the name change.
Other speakers in favor were Helen Pulizzi, who said “the dots can be connected” between the practices of Columbus and “the racism and inequalities we still see today;” and Robin Leake, a researcher who has worked for years with tribes, most recently the Mashpee Wampanoag.
Jon O’Connor, speaking against the resolution, acknowledged that Indigenous people need to be heard and recognized. He pointed out that the day after Thanksgiving has been designated Native Americans Day.
O’Connor pointed out that every national history includes negative episodes and personalities. “We don’t want to make this a race to the bottom to see who is most victimized,” he commented.
Also, Elizabeth McClung maintained that “the language in article 34 is out of character with the personality of the town. Bedford takes pride in promoting respect and works hard to celebrate inclusion.” She called for rewriting the text and reintroducing it at the fall town meeting.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763