Indigenous Peoples Day proposal back in front of N.H. lawmakers

  • Chair of the Commission on Native American Affairs Kathleen Blake speaks in support of a bill that would change the holiday Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day while state Rep. Stephen Pearson listens on January 9, 2019. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/9/2019 6:04:34 PM

An effort to honor North America’s native residents over Christopher Columbus is again making its way through the State House.

On its face, the bill is simple – changing the holiday would allow the day to “serve as a time for New Hampshire residents to reflect on the continuing struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Americas,” according to the bill’s text.

For supporters of the bill, who spoke during a public hearing Wednesday, the issue goes even deeper; taking Christopher Columbus’s name off the holiday would correct the record on the Italian explorer’s deadly exploits, while elevating the history of indigenous people.

“This is not a feel-good bill,” said Paul Pouliot, president of the Cowass North America group and member of the Pennacook tribe. “This is stopping the continued distortion of our history. ... It’s not about dishonoring Italians, it’s about dishonoring us when you keep on talking about this guy who was a man of his times.”

At least two communities in the state have already decided for themselves to rename the holiday. Durham is believed to have been the first in the state when its town council voted on the subject in September 2017; a year later, its school district also made the switch.

Hopkinton also made the switch last October in a unanimous 5-0 vote.

“Columbus Day,” is 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 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.

For some, keeping the holiday’s name unchanged is a poor reflection of the state’s moral values.

“This is the man we’ve chosen to celebrate every October,” said Kathleen Blake, chairwoman of the state’s Commission of Native American Affairs, who has indigenous heritage. “... I implore you to make a thoughtful, well-informed decision that demonstrates a spirit of integrity.”

The Republican-led House rejected a similar bill last March. Opponents suggested the change would disrespect those of Italian heritage.

That viewpoint was presented Wednesday by Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican who is Italian-American. He said the state has a large Italian-American community, “as you can see by all the Italian restaurants,” and that passing the bill would be an insult to them.

“We all know Christopher Columbus wasn’t perfect, but I also know from my history lessons in school the Indians weren’t either,” he said. “They killed and raped and burned among each other’s tribes throughout the country.”

Baldasaro remains firmly against the idea of eliminating Columbus Day altogether, saying it would “wipe away the history of our country.”

Jean Jeudy, a state representative from Manchester who emigrated from Haiti, asked Baldasaro if he was aware of Columbus’s history with the island country.

“No I don’t,” Baldasaro said. “... You could answer that question better than I could.”

The effort to change the name of the holiday has taken place in states and communities across the nation. Alaska was the first to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day when Gov. Bill Walker signed off on the bill in 2017.

Other states followed, including Vermont where Gov. Phil Scott issued an executive proclamation for the state to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day earlier this year. South Dakota, Hawaii and Oregon have made the change, as have the cities of San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis.

Joan Aandeg, a member of the Lac Courtes Oreilles band of the Ojibwe people, said the holiday is just one of the national issues indigenous people are involved in, pointing to the environmental conversation raised by the pipeline protests at Standing Rock as an example.

“Indigenous people around the world are standing up and saying, ‘please listen to us,’ ” she said. “Please rethink what our values are.”

(Material from “Monitor” archives was used in this report.)
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