House considers bill to change ‘Columbus Day’ to ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’

  • Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People Chief Paul Pouliot stands on a fishing and observation deck along the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin. Pouliot called the creation of the Columbus Day holiday in the early 20th century a mistake. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Thursday, January 11, 2018

An effort to rename “Columbus Day” as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” reached the New Hampshire House on Wednesday, bringing a long-standing debate over history and culture before the Legislature.

House Bill 1604 would amend RSA 288:1, which lays out legal holidays, specifying that the second Monday in October be called “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

“Columbus Day,” named for the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who landed in the Bahamas in 1492 and set off a spate of European colonization of the Americas, has long come under fire. Historians have said Columbus initiated a genocide against natives of Hispaniola, currently the site of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In recent years, activists have accused the U.S. holiday of glorifying Columbus’s atrocities and ignoring the accomplishments of the Native Americans that preceded him.

Renaming the holiday “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” and removing reference to the explorer helps amend for that oversight, advocates say. U.S. cities and towns have unilaterally changed the name since 1992; today, the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota have also amended their official references.

But the movement has been accused by others of unwarranted political correctness, and Italian-Americans say it erases a cultural holiday they have made their own.

In New Hampshire, the conversation has been relatively muted. But in September 2017, Durham became the first town in New Hampshire to adopt the holiday name change on its own. The town had recently come under national scrutiny for a mural in its post office depicting a massacre perpetrated by Native Americans, which many deemed reductive.

Now, a state representative from that town, Rep. Wayne Burton, D-Durham, is co-sponsoring the bill to make the change statewide.

“We were really concerned about the image of the post office,” he said of his hometown. “What arose from that is the fact that we don’t celebrate the lives of the indigenous people who were there before us.”

Waiting outside a House Executive Departments and Administration committee hearing Wednesday, advocates characterized the name change as an important step.

Paul Pouliot, president of the Cowass North America group and a Pennacook member himself, called the creation of the Columbus Day holiday in the early 20th century a mistake.

“Society always changes,” he said. “Heroes and holidays are always awarded after wars. Let’s get real: Columbus would have never met the standard for a holiday if it were today.”

Instead, Pouliot recommended Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who sailed around South America and lent his name to both continents, as a more appropriate hero.

His wife, Denis Pouliot, also a Pennacook, agreed.

“It’s about correcting history. This is about raising our children with the truth. We want the truth to be told; I’m tired of being lied to, aren’t you?”

But Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican who is himself Italian-American, called the name change an affront to his own culture.

“I see this as a slap in the face to Italian heritage,” he said. “I look at this as political correctness, I look at this as a city and town trying to hide the history of our great country.”

Baldasaro said that he would support a separate holiday celebrating indigenous people, but called Columbus Day a tribute to the plight of Italian-Americans in the 19th century. And he said Columbus’s actions should be hailed and scrutinized, for good and for bad.

The bill is in the early stages of its potential journey. But Burton said submitting the bill was important however it fares.

“I don’t know the chances of this bill,” he said. “But what I do know is that legislation is also used to raise awareness.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)