Town Meeting, Segment A: A Resounding Yes For Indigenous Peoples’ Day Article

Photo: Belmont approves changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

On the last night of Segment A of Belmont’s Town Meeting, members overwhelmingly approved the article to rename the holiday on the second Monday of October from Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the Native Americans who lived centuries in the Americas and what is known as Belmont.

The final vote taken virtually after three hours of debate on Wednesday, May 5, was 212 yes, 32 no with 13 abstentions.

When first presented by two Belmont High School students – Alex Fick and Lora Ovcharova – in the fall of 2020, Indigenous Peoples’ Day appeared to have wide support as it became a non-binding article at the annual Town Meeting.

But a grassroots campaign alleging the article demeaned and offended Italian-Americans created a lot of debate weeks before the meeting, making it one of the more contentious measures to come before members since the McLean development plans of the late 1990s. The sticking point for many was the article’s preamble which listed in great detail Columbus’ atrocities to indigenous tribes during his voyages and his contribution to bringing the slave trade to the Americas.

Yet members stood fast behind the original article, rejecting two amendments, one supported by Ralph Jones, Tommasina Olson, and Judith Feinleib, which would have kept Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian-American heritage while providing an alternative day in August for honoring Indigenous People.

“We are proud to be able to say that Belmont is moving forward in alignment with its promise of anti-racism,” said Fick after the vote. “There is much more work to be done in Belmont, but this is a big step towards making Belmont a more welcoming, inclusive community for everyone.”

“We want to thank all of the Town Meeting Members who voted in support of Article 10 unamended, everyone who signed our petition, and everyone who helped us along the way, especially Stephanie Crement and Emily Rodriguez,” he said. 

Belmont Select Board Chair Adam Dash opened the meeting supporting the original language of the resolution.

“Article 10 is about unity. The unity of Belmont residents standing up against racism and discrimination,” said Dash. “Passing this article will be forceful to those who scrawled swastikas on our schools and hurl epithets at our neighbors of color.”

“Tonight is the night that we face the question; are we serious about combatting racism in this town or not?” Dash said, asking the members to follow the lead of a growing number of towns – Arlington Town Meeting approved a similar measure this week by a vote of 222 to 1 – and states and “stand on the right side of history.”

Dangerous stereotypes

Fick and the article’s co-creator, Lora Ovcharova, spoke on the reason why they campaigned for the change. “The celebration of Columbus Day continues to perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about indigenous people and contributes to their erasure from American society and history, rather creating a positive day for the celebration of Native Americans by renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day will help us begin to make amends for the past and honor [them],” said Ovcharovsa.

Guest speaker Mahtowin Munro, chair of United American Indians of New England told the nearly 265 members that designating the new name will “spark conversations and educate about indigenous people, our history, our resilience, and contemporary cultures.”

Supporting the Jones/Olson/Feinleib amendment, Diane Modica of the Massachusetts Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America (whose headquarters is on Concord Avenue) said while her group supports recognizing native Americans and their history, it should not come at the expense of well over a century of the close association of Columbus with celebrating Italian American pride and culture.

“Christopher Columbus became a symbol through which Italian Americans have celebrated their ethnicity and it’s the only legal holiday that recognizes the heritage of an estimated 18 million Italian Americans,” said Modica, and it is “imperative that we do not thoughtlessly, unnecessarily, and unfairly take away from one group for the misplaced purposes of another.”

Speaking for his amendment, Jones believed the article’s preamble laying at the feet of Columbus a long list of atrocities was “unnecessary.” Seeking a middle ground, he suggested following a 1982 United Nations resolution on the Declaration on the Rights Of Indigenous People which observes Aug. 9 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, while allowing Columbus Day to remain as a symbolic day for Italian Americans, possibly by another name.

Seeing more than Columbus

While not absolving the abuses committed, Jones said there is an emotional bond between Italian Americans and Columbus. “A professor at Queens College in New York put it this way: ‘When I see Columbus on a statue, I don’t see Columbus. I see my grandfather’.”

The Select Board’s Mark Paolillo said while feeling conflicted about whether to support the Jones et al amendment, a second one from the Select Board’s Roy Epstein or the unamended version, he sought counsel on this political issue from his 27-year-old son.

“He said, ‘Dad, it’s a difficult issue be we absolutely have to lift up and support indigenous people who have been brutalized, marginalized and discriminated against for decades and still are today’,” said Paolillo. While he wanted some acknowledgment of the contributions Italian American’s have made, Paolillo would support the original amendment. “As a proud second-generation Italian American, I would not feel diminished by doing that because I know that we will continue to celebrate in this town, in this state. and country Italian heritage and culture.”

The majority of comments and questions from Members indicated a level of support for the un-amended article that would hard to defeat. Karen McNay Bauerle, Precinct 6, recalled her own childhood in Georgia where the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose eternal suffering was “the loss of their heroes and their way of life,” funded memorials to the Lost Cause throughout the US. That shameful celebration of Southern heroism is no different than hailing the accomplishments of Italian Americans by commemorating the voyages of Columbus.

“There is so much to celebrate but we cannot celebrate together when our national mythologies that precedence over the experiences of indigenous people and Black and Brown bodies in this country,” said Bauerle, adding that approving the article “is a good symbolic beginning.”

Precinct 1’s Kathryn Bonfiglio said she was one of many Italian Americans who support the original article. “I am not anti-Italian. I’m anti Columbus and I’m proud giving indigenous people the lead on what changes they need to begin restorative justice on this issue.”

Lisa Carlivati, Precinct 5, said while Columbus is a point of pride for many Italian Americans, “what I’m hearing is that Columbus is causing a great deal of pain to indigenous people.” She said the amendment if approved would honor native people in August outside the school calendar while the conversation at Belmont schools in October would be about Columbus.

“What should happen on the second Monday in October is a conversation about the Massachusett and Wampanoag tribes … and the people who were the caretakers for that land for centuries,” she said.

The Jones et. al amendment was defeated 77-190 with 3 abstaining.

The second amendment by Roy Epstein which would add a paragraph to the article:

Columbus Day was established to recognize the discrimination and injustices
experienced by Italian Americans as well as their invaluable contributions to the United States,
and the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day in Belmont as a counter-celebration to Columbus
Day would in no way deny that history or diminish its significance.

Epstein said his addition was “that we the most mild of edits to remember that Columbus Day really did have originated in an admirable purpose to combat discrimination [of Italian immigrants.]” With its attempt to show the holiday was just as much a recognition of heritage as a man, the amendment received some greater level of acceptance, but it could not reverse the trend of night, being defeated 97 for, 171 against and 1 abstained.

For the student authors of the article will add a new voice to advancing civil rights in Belmont.

“We are grateful that Town Meeting came together to vote with vindication to listen to Indigenous Peoples in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. The rejection of amendments properly centers the voices of Indigenous Peoples’ and sends a signal to marginalized communities that we care about fighting injustice and that we will listen to them,” said Fick.

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