Our Opinion: Town Meeting Reps should sink Columbus Day

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Today, March 25, Brattleboro will hold its annual Representative Town Meeting. While the reps will have some meaty issues to weigh and decide on, they will also be discussing whether the town should rename Columbus Day — which falls this year on Oct. 9 as Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Understanding the kind, compassionate, intelligent and literate people who volunteer to be meeting reps, we believe approval of Article 22, which calls upon the Select Board to do away with Columbus Day, is a given. Last October, the Select Board decided not to put the question on the annual Representative Town Meeting warning without a properly authorized petition.

Now that the matter is officially on the ballot, meeting reps can approve it and the new Select Board, which will be sworn in on March 27, will have the opportunity to do the right thing.

Last year, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, upon the urging of a local man, declared Oct. 10 Indigenous People's Day in lieu of Columbus Day, but that was for 2016 only.

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Last year's proclamation called for "re-imagining Columbus Day as an opportunity to celebrate indigenous heritage and resiliency."

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has advocated for an Indigenous Peoples Day for many years, the changed holiday is also a chance "to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, to organize against current injustices, and to celebrate indigenous resistance."

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The UUA notes that the idea of replacing Columbus Day was born in 1977, at a U.N.-sponsored conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on discrimination against indigenous populations in the Americas. Fourteen years later, activists in Berkeley, Calif., convinced the Berkeley City Council to declare Oct. 12 a "Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People." Since then, cities around the country have changed the name of the holiday, as have a number of states, including Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota.

While some who oppose the renaming of the holiday note that accusing Columbus of genocide is hyperbole, the fact is his actions, whether they were based in religious fervor, a lust for gold or just plain ignorance, led to the annihilation of the Taino, a subgroup of Arawak, who lived on Hispaniola. Those who did not die from diseases they had no resistance to, were enslaved or forced to convert to Christianity. Those who did not convert were summarily executed. Columbus, on successive trips to what he believed were islands off the coast of India, continued his atrocities unabated.

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For these reasons alone, we should no longer celebrate an official holiday in memory of this man and his actions.

But celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day is also an opportunity for us to recognize the history of the people who thrived in the Western Hemisphere until the arrival of the Europeans. That history should be recognized for its diversity, its ingenuity and its respect for natural cycles. Indigenous Peoples Day is also a chance for us to acknowledge obliteration of unique cultures and the people who carried them from generation to generation.

Lastly, Indigenous Peoples Day gives us a day to thank the original inhabitants of this hemisphere and their decedents for their valuable contributions to our own culture and our own understanding of the natural world, as well as atone for past transgressions. Yes, while many of us are not descendants of the Europeans who displaced the Native Americans, we have all benefited from that displacement, and we should be willing to recognize what we received.

As befits a town as progressive as Brattleboro, in a state as progressive as Vermont, we believe it's time Town Meeting Representatives and the Select Board change the name of the holiday in recognition of the history, the culture, the lives and the deaths of the Western Hemisphere's indigenous people.


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