Brattleboro does not rename Columbus Day just yet

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BRATTLEBORO — Plans to change the civic holiday name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day here won't happen by Monday.

But it's not from lack of trying.

At annual Representative Town Meeting in March, a non-binding resolution was passed to rename the holiday. Dylan Mackinnon, who represented District 2, proposed it when "other business" came up towards the end of the meeting.

"A majority of the people who were present at the time voted in favor. The board has not taken any action on that thus far," Select Board Chairman David Gartenstein said at a meeting Tuesday.

Board members wondered whether they should put the question up to voters at next year's Representative Town Meeting and not require a petition with signatures as is usually necessary. A motion to do so ultimately failed 2-3 when the board voted.

Originally, the board was asked to proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenous People's Day. The request came from Brattelboro resident Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

"I'd like to see us do this. I agree it would be great if Town Meeting did it. Maybe instead of voting to proclaim it tonight, we can vote to put it on the Town Meeting warning instead and let the whole town vote on it," Select Board member David Schoales said. "I can't see a reason frankly why not to vote on it. If there's a bunch of people who think it's awful, they can try to change it."

Schoales said as elected leaders in the community, he thought it was within their role to "make a statement like this."

"I just don't think it's a Select Board decision," board Vice Chairwoman Kate O'Connor said. "It's a statement on behalf of the entire town so I think that the entire town has to be involved in this decision."

Board member John Allen agreed with O'Connor. And Gartenstein pointed to a section in the Town Charter that would allow the matter to go to Representative Town Meeting — a petition containing signatures from 5 percent of the town's registered voters would be needed — and said those procedures should be followed.

DeGray joined Schoales in voting in the affirmative for including the question on the warning.

"This word 'precedent' is a juke word. We throw it out there to preclude us from doing something," DeGray said. "It's not precedent for me because the board is constantly revolving and no board is bound by another board."

Indigenous People's Day was first proposed in 1977, according to the proclamation submitted to the town. A delegation brought it to the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas.

Several towns and a few states have renamed the holiday. Recently, the Massachusetts towns of Amherst and Northampton joined Bridgeport, Conn., Durango, Colo., Minneapolis, Minn., Belfast, Maine, Seattle, and Berkeley, Sebastopol and Santa Cruz in California. States that made the change include Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Hawaii.

"I believe in positivity and being progressive so I'm not going to talk much about Columbus Day. Time and the freedom of information that we have nowadays have indicated that the story isn't always what we were told. To the contrary, there were many people who were affected by that action. They're still dealing with that and we're trying to do better," Holschuh told the Select Board. "The indigenous people of this area, the Abenaki and their ancestors, have been here for over 12,000 years. A very long time. Brattleboro's been here for 250."

Holschuh, still hopeful Brattleboro might be the first town in Vermont to rename the holiday, is planning on getting signatures on a petition as early as Gallery Walk on Friday. He said he would like to bring the document to the next Select Board meeting scheduled for Oct. 18.

Resident Ralph Meima had called for the board to make the change prior to this year's holiday.

"We still have a number of days to get the word out and indicate action on this sooner rather than losing yet again another year," Meima told the board. "I think an important thing to consider in deciding to do something speedy is just the tremendous attention that indigenous people and indigenous affairs and questions of justice have received in this country in just the last few months in connection with the Sacred Standing Stones camp, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline coming to a focal point for the issues in the United States."

Now is the time, resident Sherry Stewart concurred. Renaming the day was "long overdue," she said.

"I think making this change would put us on the right side of history," Stewart said. "I think Columbus Day was a bad mistake in the first place and I see no reason to defend any of his actions on this continent. I think it's a matter of respect and honor to the people who live in our community. It's matter of democracy."

Representative Town Meeting provides a chance for "everyone to vote on things," said Joe Rivers, a resident and social studies teacher at Brattleboro Area Middle School.

"This is a chance for the representatives that we voted into office to take a stand," he said. "This should be an easy vote for the people from Brattleboro with our history here in this area. Since 1724, Europeans have occupied this land and lived here and used the resources... (that) were taken from the Abenaki."

Resident Franz Reichsman, who voted in favor of the action at Town Meeting, said he was "really surprised" at how much support was shown then.

"I thought it was a striking statement on the part of the Town Meeting representatives," Reichsman told the board. "On the other hand, I think it would be a more powerful statement if it came from the population as a whole as opposed to the five of you sitting up there."

Resident William Isch encouraged the board to let the citizens decide.

"I really feel the town should vote on this," he said.

Moving forward

Holschuh told the Reformer he thinks there's a lot of popular support for renaming the holiday.

"By my count, 5 percent of registered voters is somewhere around 390 to 400 people. I don't think that's going to be a stretch at all. I think we can get those in one night," Holschuh said. "Charity begins at home. The best place to start is right here."

Fort Dummer was built in the borders of what is now Brattleboro, he said, adding that the region felt the first impact of European settlers. The British fort was constructed in 1724 by the colonial militia of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

"We are ground zero for the clash of cultures," Holschuh said. "The fact that Brattleboro is where it all started, it would be appropriate if we were the first town in the state to say, 'This is not the way the story is told.' And I think we should take that step. This is where the colonization started, and the domination and the poor treatment. Relations began to disintegrate. This would be good place to start making it better again."

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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