Time to make the change

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Whenever someone on the Island has a need, the Martha’s Vineyard community rallies in support.

It’s time for the Island to do what the state legislature has failed to do once again. It’s time for all six Island towns to declare the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day, joining communities across the commonwealth and 11 states in transforming the Monday holiday to honor those people who were here before European settlers arrived. On the Vineyard, these people are an important part of our community — the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag. 

President Biden did issue a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. “Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to,” the proclamation states. “That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began. For generations, federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

Biden’s proclamation was a step, but did not eliminate Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

Is there a compromise to be had? Can we celebrate indigenous people while also celebrating those who immigrated to this country from other parts of the world? If there is, it needs to be done without heralding Columbus, whose history is a far cry from Jean Marzollo’s poem that glorifies his voyage with the opening line: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve advocated replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Two years ago, we suggested that the Island join Mashpee, which is home to the Mashpee Wampanoag — the state’s only other federally recognized tribe — in officially recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day.

That year, Mashpee voted to forgo the Columbus Day holiday in favor of celebrating the people who lived in Mashpee before European settlers “discovered” America. For many in Indian Country, celebrating Columbus is a slap in the face, because he enslaved and killed indigenous people. Celebrating Columbus as the “discoverer of America” is also troubling because history — the unvarnished history — tells us that the explorer never set foot on what is the United States. Instead, his three ships were in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. Not to mention you can’t “discover” a place people have already inhabited. 

Last week, the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition went before the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee to suggest changing the reference on school calendars from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. No vote was taken, and the coalition plans to return with more details, but it set off commenters on our website — some fully supportive of the idea and others with the same tired arguments against it. What we found particularly ironic are the people who suggest that this would somehow erase history. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing to indigenous people for generations? For years we’ve ignored the fact that we took land from indigenous people for a fraction of the value, we brought disease that killed their ancestors, and we failed to recognize their governments.

On Friday in our daily newsletter, The Minute, we asked our readers if they support a change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of making the switch — 68 percent to 32 percent.

As we said in 2019, this isn’t about rewriting history, it’s about making right with history.

Recently, Boston became the latest large city in the country to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. The city isn’t waiting for the legislature to do what’s right. Wouldn’t it be great if leaders on the Island proposed town meeting warrant articles to change the designation from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in honor of our neighbors and friends? 

We do see the point of some people who say the country’s immigrant population is something that deserves recognition as well. We could support such a day, but not at the expense of celebrating the important contributions of the indigenous population.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag’s deep and rich ties to the Island should be honored and celebrated. It should be pointed out that when other tribes were at war with English settlers as part of King Philip’s War, the Aquinnah tribe remained neutral.

In his proclamation, President Biden stated, “On Indigenous Peoples Day, we honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today.”

On Monday, Sassafras Earth Education and the Aquinnah Cultural Center held a commemoration of Indigenous Peoples Day at Felix Neck. It’s time to rally support for a change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on Martha’s Vineyard, to make next year’s event an official reflection of the Island’s indigenous roots.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I agree, the concern over forgetting the past is without merit. To my knowledge, no one wants Columbus removed from history. Being included in a fact-based lesson plan and being honored by the nation are two wildly different things.

    Native communities have endured this insult for far too long. We all learned of events and historical figures in school who are not worthy of celebration. On that much, most can easily agree. The devastating harm done to indigenous cultures should automatically be considered among these atrocities. That it isn’t, that we still have to explain as much in 2021, is a neon indication of the ignorance that persists.

    Under the previous article, it was mentioned that we need a Vespucci Day. While that was probably an innocent suggestion and I mean no disrespect towards any particular commenter (not sure who said it), I wanted to add that every day is Vespucci Day. The continent’s moniker is enough of an ever-present nod to that period of ‘discovery’ more honestly known as colonization.

    Having found a few remarks here this week to be frighteningly backwards, I’m glad to read of the support from so many in our Island community. I hope everyone will give the points raised in this editorial some real consideration. The elimination of Columbus Day is a matter of overdue respect.

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