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WESTFORD — The Select Board has approved proposed language to replace Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
The question was originally proposed during an Oct. 18 Special Town Meeting in 2020. Voters rejected a Citizen’s Petition 111 to 108 to rename the holiday, but referred the resolution to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for further consideration.
Majority of survey respondents oppose change
On Aug. 2, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion hosted a virtual listening session where residents voiced concerns over renaming the holiday. A survey was also conducted earlier this year, where approximately 64% of the 782 respondents opposed renaming the holiday.
Opponents cited historic discrimination against Italian-Americans and cancel culture as reasons to oppose the measure.
“Cancel culture has over-reached in its quest to generalize our culture and history. Denying its existing does nothing to create cooperation among ethnic groups and cultures,” wrote Westford resident Dan Daddieco in an Aug. 23 email to the Select Board. “It achieves the exact opposite.”
Some opponents also believe renaming the holiday would be divisive to some residents in town.
“It is divisive to replace Columbus Day with a holiday recognizing a different group of people,” wrote Westford resident Cathy Creed in an Aug. 23 email to the Select Board.
Proponents of the change noted loss from genocide and forced assimilation as a reason to support the change.
“A lot of Indigenous people choose not to participate in conversations about Columbus Day. Its not because we don’t feel strongly one way or the other, its because it’s salt in the wound to listen to people perpetuate untruths and demonize the ancestors bolster the argument in order to support Columbus Day after losing so much to genocide,” wrote Nulhegan Abenaki Citizen and Westford resident Jill Cressy-Gross in an Aug. 23 email to the Select Board.
She continued, “I can understand where people’s emotion comes from when faced with losing something that they have been brought up with. But by the same token, it pales in comparison to what Indigenous people have lost and are still fighting to hold onto.”
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee outlines intent
Members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee spoke on their intent behind the question and how it will be presented to voters.
“The formulation of the language is separate from any arguments and justifications. Our objective is to get as close to the point as possible of saying ‘yes or no’ and capturing a little bit of why the issue has been placed on many town and state ballots,” said DEI Committee chair Eric Barber-Mingo.
He continued, “the question itself is not meant to be a position statement, but to give the basic rationale as to why this has become an issue.”
Proposed language draws contention
Some members of the Select Board preferred to create an additional holiday – allowing for Indigenous People’s Day to coexist with Columbus Day.
“When this whole process started, I hoped we’d leave Columbus Day alone and find a way to celebrate the Indigenous peoples of this region separately,” said Select Board member John Cunningham in an Aug. 23 meeting. “This puts the issue, right here in one vote. It’s a choice, and people will make the choice.”
He continued, “I just think it’s an interesting wording and that will bring it to a head and we’ll make a decision. We may be back to the drawing board to find a better way to celebrate Indigenous people’s Day because I think most of the people will go along with it, but we’ll have to see. It shouldn’t be an either-or, there should be a way to accommodate both.”
The approved language can be found in bold below.
“Shall the Westford Select Board declare the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, superseding local references to Columbus Day, and recommend that it be observed by the people of Westford, with appropriate exercises in the schools and otherwise, to acknowledge the history of genocide and discrimination against Indigenous peoples, and to recognize and celebrate the thriving cultures and continued resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples and their tribal nations?”
Four members of the board voted to approve the language, while Select Board member Scott Hazelton abstained from the vote.
“The wording forced an up or down decision, it doesn’t have to be,” Hazelton said. “We asked the DEI committee to come up with the wording and I would not vote against their work but I can not support the wording as it stands.”
Board members leave decision to voters
Both the Select Board Chair Andrea Peraner-Sweet and Select Board member Tom Clay noted that residents should have the opportunity to decide on the question and return to the drawing board if necessary.
“We should put it to the people and see what they say. If we decide at a further date, depending on how the question comes out and what happens if we have further recommendations and considerations, then we can do that,” said Peraner-Sweet.
The question will appear on the Nov. 8 local ballot after a review from the town’s legal council.
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