The Wellesley Board of Selectmen (BOS) held a public forum at the start of its regularly scheduled April 29 meeting at 7pm in Town Hall to begin consideration of a request from the World of Wellesley (WOW) to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in town. At the meeting, the public had the opportunity to speak about the WOW request. BOS Chairman Jack Morgan said that the role of the BOS at the meeting would be as listeners, and that no immediate decision would be made as a direct result of this one meeting.
The petition that started the conversation
A WOW petition to make such a change reads: “Our Indigenous friends and neighbors consider changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day as an important first step toward acknowledging the genocide of millions of their ancestors and the theft of their homelands, that began with the arrival of Columbus, as well as a recognition of Columbus’ role in the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of African people. It is a meaningful symbolic gesture to begin addressing the pain caused to Native Peoples by the many years of celebrating Columbus as a hero.”
WOW reps stated their case at the start of the forum. During Citizens Speak the public then shared its views. Morgan at the end of the two-hour meeting said that the (BOS) will deliberate and consider the matter, and that the BOS will reflect on the information shared at the forum and will determine the next steps. Morgan said, “There will be a public process. There will be dialogue and discussion.”
A future Town-hall driven public meeting is not yet scheduled. WOW expects to hold a public informational meeting on the issue later in the spring.
A citizens petition to change the October holiday was withdrawn in March 2019 from annual Town Meeting. The Advisory Committee had voted 7-4 (with 1 abstention) for unfavorable action, and following BoS discussion, member Marjorie Freiman encouraged WOW to withdraw the petition and work with the town to foster more discussion.
Talking it out
The April 29 meeting kicked off the discussion that back in March Freiman encouraged. WOW President Michelle Chalmers spoke first at the meeting. She said, “I would like to acknowledge that the Town of Wellesley is located on the traditional territory of the Massachusett people.” From there she stated WOW’s goal, which is that Wellesley change the name of the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
Such a change in Wellesley would have no effect on the name of Columbus Day as a federal holiday.
After Chalmers spoke, several other Wellesley residents then spoke in support of the change. After that, the floor was opened up for Citizens Speak, at which time over a dozen residents spoke, some in support of the change, others not. Here is what residents said:
Joan A greeted the BOS and the meeting attendees in her native language. She then switched over to English and said, “Indigenous people do not celebrate Columbus because to us Columbus is the person who came here and initiated the genocide of the indigenous people of this hemisphere…In school we’re sort of given the idea that this was an empty wilderness of land that was available, but it wasn’t. These lands were populated by Indian tribes…we were already here for thousands upon thousands of years.”
Emma Hammond, a 7th grader at Wellesley Middle School said, “Most sources about Columbus only show him as a hero, but that isn’t true…History should be truthful, so there shouldn’t be a holiday celebrating an inaccurate past.”
When Hammond was applauded, Frieman reminded the crowd of BOS meeting rules, which prohibit clapping, booing, or other public displays. She said that the meeting is a safe space in which residents must respectfully agree or disagree.
Mahtowin Munro, a member of the Lac Courtes Oreilles band of Ojibwe Anishinaabe said, “There’s no questions about the truth of Columbus and his men. They were butchers, rapists, and slave traders…Maybe not everyone is going to understand the need for the change, but celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day adds to the town in every possible way and it is a matter of respect.”
Wellesley High School history teacher Jackie Katz said, “Columbus Day is just one of those days when I feel, wow, we are failing at this. Every year kids go, wait, I don’t understand why we’re celebrating this guy.” Katz conceded that although when teaching history it isn’t fair to hold the people of yesterday accountable to the standards of today, Columbus “doesn’t hold the standard for regular human decency” at any time in history.
The meeting was then opened up to community speak.