Roughly a month after the public voted in favor of a non-binding referendum to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, the Wellesley Select Board declared by a 4-1 vote that the second Monday in October would now honor Indigenous Peoples in town.
The Board’s discussion and vote followed comments by more than a dozen citizens, some familiar public commenters on this topic, others not. Most spoke against the change.
Campaigns for and against the change have made for plenty of political drama in Wellesley over the past few years, complete with lawn sign stealing and many letters to the editor. The Unite Wellesley group argued for celebrating Italian heritage on the second Monday in October and honoring Indigenous People on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Those in favor of replacing Columbus Day have denounced the actions of Christopher Columbus and called for recognizing native people.
During Monday’s Board meeting, among the citizen speakers was 10-year resident Kenneth Largess, who said Columbus Day has always been a day of pride for his large extended Italian family. He compared it to St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish. “This attempt to cancel Columbus Day in a town in which over 30% of the population claims some Italian heritage is only going to further divide us at a time when we should all be trying to become unified,” he said, urging the board to show “courage” in not jumping aboard the cancel culture train.
Speaking in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day was Nova Biro, who read a World of Wellesley statement that included: “Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on all town calendars will reinforce the Select Board’s recent Statement on Anti-Racism and Anti-Bias, will begin to remedy the harmful effects of racist policies, and will begin to acknowledge the contributions and ongoing presence of Indigenous People in our community.”
Beth Sullivan Woods opened the discussion among Board members by saying “I’ve lived here my whole life and I find this to be such a sad, sad day for us.” She described the issue as being “divisive” and “polarizing,” and questioned whether the matter of addressing a state holiday was really within the Board’s purview. Sullivan Woods, who voted against the change, urged her fellow Board members to hit the pause button on this subject and figure out a better path forward.
Board Member Lise Olney, who joined the rest of the Board in voting for the change, said “I believe it’s time to honor the request of Indigenous People that we not only recognize their place in history but also that we no longer choose not to honor and celebrate the man, Christopher Columbus…” Olney said she’s come to learn over the years that Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples “is a painful reminder of 500 years of oppression by European settlers.”
Board Chair Tom Ulfelder, who didn’t vote in favor of this change at Town Meeting, said he’s “deeply concerned about the impact on Italian Americans in Wellesley, and others are very concerned about multiculturalism generally.” Ulfelder said he’d prefer to see “a negotiated outcome,” but that he can’t ignore the democratic process that took place.
Town Meeting voted in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day in summer of 2020, after a citizen petition advocating for Indigenous Peoples Day was withdrawn from Town Meeting the previous year. That 2020 vote led to the non-binding referendum vote by the public in March (49% of voters said “yes, “43% said “no,” and 8% left ballots blank), and ultimately Monday night’s Select Board vote.
Wellesley joins Arlington, Newton and other Massachusetts communities, as well as more than a dozen states, that now recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. Columbus Day remains a federal and Massachusetts state holiday.