BRATTLEBORO — After getting Vermont governors to sign proclamations replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day for a third year in a row, Rich Holschuh hopes the Legislature will consider making the change permanent.
"It's going to take some solid work and lobbying," the Brattleboro resident and member of the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs said, "because the Legislature has a lot of things to do."
Gov. Phil Scott issued an executive proclamation for Vermont to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day on Oct. 8.
"I followed on the heels of last year's petition to Gov. Scott, which he had granted, but the executive proclamations are only for one year, for a particular day," Holschuh said. He requested the proclamation be made through the governor's website.
Holschuh said the proclamation has not yet made it onto the governor's website. Scott signed one last year and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed one a year earlier.
Scott's proclamation says Vermont "recognizes it was founded and built upon lands first inhabited by Indigenous Peoples of this region — the Abenaki, their ancestors and allies — and acknowledges and honors these members of the community."
"I'm pleased to recognize the historic and cultural significance of the Indigenous Peoples here in Vermont, with an understanding our state was founded and built upon the lands they first inhabited," Scott said in an email. "With this proclamation, we, as a state, aim to acknowledge and celebrate indigenous heritage."
There was a recent push to get lawmakers to make a "permanent change," Holschuh said. Bills were taken up in the House and the Senate in the last legislative session.
"They just sort of died in committee," he said.
He believes the three proclamations may draw further support.
"Surprisingly, there is some opposition," he said. "Surprising to me, surprising maybe not to others."
Some people think "it's simply frivolous and unnecessary," Holschuh said. Others "are traditionalists. They just want things the way they are and that's fine. Then there are other people saying this is a politically correct move and a fringe movement and it detracts from whatever is more important."
The last argument, he said, is that Christopher Columbus shouldn't be "dumped off his pedestal."
"I think they can all be met with a very reasonable explanation," Holschuh said. "I'm not really worried about that. I and others just need to be able to be given a chance to speak — you know, testify to the committees and on the floor if needed. I'm perfectly willing to do that."
Holschuh said his commission and other ally groups will be working on the initiative with some lawmakers who are ready to help. The plan is to start organizing before the legislative session starts in January.
"I would like to think that Vermont can do this," he said. "We seem to be the prime candidate to take this kind of action, given our political bent."
Last year, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed a law renaming the holiday Indigenous Peoples' Day — making it the first state to make the permanent switch. And Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a proclamation in a similar fashion to Vermont. But like Iowa and Nevada, Oregon had not previously recognized Columbus Day.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Denton signed a proclamation like Vermont's in 2016 and the renamed holiday was observed there last year. South Dakota celebrates Native American Day.
Hawaii never recognized Columbus Day. But now it celebrates Discoverer's Day on the same day as a way to remember the Polynesian discovers of the islands.
Columbus Day started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
"The idea of getting rid of Columbus Day and replacing it entirely with an Indigenous Peoples' Day was first proposed in 1977, at an International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, and was sponsored by the United Nations," according to holidayscalendar.com "This idea would spread from conference to conference until 1992, when the Bay Area Indian Alliance convinced the city council of Berkeley, California to declare October 12th the 'Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People' and implement an education program in schools, libraries and museums that celebrated indigenous cultures instead of the birthday of Christopher Columbus — an explorer that many see as being responsible for the genocide of indigenous peoples."
Since then, the city of Berkeley has recognized that holiday.
SUPPORT OF TOWNS
In 2016, Holschuh petitioned to have the town of Brattleboro recognize the renamed holiday and the proposal received unanimous support at annual Representative Town Meeting the following year. Then the Select Board approved the change on the official municipal calendar.
Residents in Marlboro approved the same switch by voting at annual Town Meeting Day. And Brattleboro Town School Board members approved the change for school calendars.
"I think the town of Hartford, Vermont, is taking this up for action this year," Holschuh said. "They may be the third town to pass it. I would like to see a lot more actions by individual towns and I do not understand why people haven't picked that up and brought it to the towns. That would help the Legislature to make up their minds."
Holschuh called Columbus a "talented person who did some all right things" but also a lot of other things that negatively affected indigenous people and are not brought up when recognizing the holiday.
"Those actions have been put to the side, conveniently omitted," he said. "It's about recognizing the complete truth. I'm not in favor of rewriting history and removing Christopher Columbus from history because he's very much a part of it. What I am in favor of is completing the story because what most of us learned in school is not complete. Most of it is not true. I just think it's the right thing to do. It's not a politically correct move. It's just correct. Because the story we're telling is not correct."
National recognition of the renamed holiday is still far away in Holschuh's view.
"The federal government is not ready to deal with their situation with native people. They're just not," he said.
He later added, "We're making some headway."
Brattleboro will have a local observance at Pliny Park at 4 p.m. Oct. 8.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.