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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Town of Groton changes Columbus Day to Italian Heritage and Indigenous Peoples’ Day

    Groton ― The Town of Groton has joined a movement of communities and states that no longer observe Columbus Day, as it will now observe the holiday on the second Monday in October as Italian Heritage Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

    The Town Council, which voted this week to eliminate Columbus Day, said it chose the dual holiday name to honor the contributions of Italian Americans and Indigenous peoples.

    The Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation applauded the town’s decision.

    Locally, the City of Groton and New London are among the communities that have shifted away from Columbus Day. Other municipalities, from Mansfield to Hartford, have chosen Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day.

    Columbus Day is a federal holiday, and President Joe Biden also has issued proclamations for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. According to the Pew Research Center, “16 states and the territory of American Samoa still observe the second Monday in October as an official public holiday exclusively called Columbus Day.”

    The state of Connecticut recognizes American Indian Day in September and continues to observe Columbus Day.

    At Tuesday’s Groton Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Town Councilor Dan Gaiewski, who made the motion for the dual name, spoke in support of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and said the calls for its creation came from Indigenous groups who did not want to celebrate Columbus Day, as it brought genocide and colonization to communities that had been in the Americas for centuries.

    But Gaiewski, who is Italian American, said he also would like the community to celebrate Italian Heritage Day. He said Italian Americans had supported the creation of Columbus Day as a way to achieve acceptance here. He said Columbus, an Italian, became a figurehead as more Italian Americans came to the United States and faced religious and ethnic discrimination.

    Columbus Day, which became a national holiday in 1934, was created as a way to honor the contributions of Italian Americans, who were facing prejudice, according to a town document prepared for Tuesday’s meeting.

    Conversations about Indigenous Peoples’ Day began at a 1977 United Nations conference, and South Dakota was the first state to observe the holiday in 1990, according to the town.

    Reasons to rename the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day include “reflection and celebration of Native American’s culture, resilience, and their contributions to American society throughout history, a way to shine a light on issues important to Indigenous communities, to reflect on how the United States has treated Native Americans over time, and correcting narratives of Christopher Columbus’ legacy and the credit for discovering the Americas, when Indigenous peoples were already present,” according to the document.

    Town Councilor Portia Bordelon on Tuesday made a motion to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but no one seconded the motion. She said she’d like to address the issue at hand, which is eliminating the name Columbus, and she’s in full support of separately creating an Italian Heritage Day.

    Bordelon, who identified herself as multiracial and has a little Italian heritage, said she is hearing from the younger generation that the concern is directly with the person named Columbus.

    “It’s not what the ethnicity or the background is,” she said. “It’s solely with the actions and the name of the person, and not the whole culture.”

    Councilors voted 7-0, with one abstention at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting to change Columbus Day to Italian Heritage Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Town Councilors Gaiewski, Juliette Parker, Bruce Jones, Juan Melendez, Jr., David McBride, Scott Westervelt and Edward Jacome voted in support, while Bordelon, who voted in favor at the earlier Committee of the Whole meeting, abstained. Town Councilor Rachael Franco recused herself from the discussions and votes.

    Parker said the change is a way to be inclusive and honor both heritages.

    “I see it as being respectful to each group and not being divisive,” she said.

    Applause from area tribes

    “The Mohegan Tribe appreciates the State of Connecticut's recognition of American Indian Day in September, while also looking forward to a day when Connecticut will stand with other states in recognizing Indigenous People’s Day as an official holiday,” Mohegan Tribal leadership said in a statement provided by a tribal spokeswoman. “In that spirit, we applaud and appreciate the Town of Groton's recent decision to officially recognize Indigenous People’s Day. Changes such as these are both a symbolic and substantive shift towards recognizing and respecting the rightful place of Indigenous communities in our history and society."

    The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation applauded the town’s decision to change the holiday to one that recognizes Indigenous people and Italian heritage.

    “Christopher Columbus represents a dark and painful chapter in the history of North America steeped in genocide, enslavement, displacement ― all of which are rooted in racism,” the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation said in a statement provided by a tribal spokeswoman. “Celebrating Columbus Day is not only a stark reminder of heinous acts committed against Indigenous people, but also perpetuates the false narrative that our country’s history began as a result of his voyages. In actuality, “Turtle Island”, as our ancestors called this land before European arrival, was occupied by Indigenous people already, and he did not step foot on these shores. This false narrative attempts to erase our existence, history and culture, and influences policies that erode tribal sovereignty.“

    The tribal nation also encouraged Groton schools “to adopt curriculum that includes comprehensive and accurate discussions on Christopher Columbus’s complex history, the historical and contemporary impact of his legacy on Indigenous and other marginalized communities, and the dehumanizing influence of the ‘doctrine of discovery’ and its impact on Indigenous people.”

    A recent state law requires schools to include Native American studies in their curriculum.

    Local communities making changes

    The City of Groton in recent years moved to identify the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

    “It was about equity,” said City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick.

    In 2020, New London changed Columbus Day to Italian Heritage Day and named October as Italian Heritage Month and November as Native American Heritage Month. The school system observes Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

    Some schools and school districts in the region, including Norwich Free Academy and Norwich Public Schools, changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

    The Montville School district observes the October holiday as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” The Board of Education made the change in January of 2022 when approving the district calendar for the 2022-2023 school year, said Superintendent Laurie Pallin.

    “The rationale discussed at the meeting was that the change was fitting given our relationship with the Mohegan Tribe,” she said.

    Kate Ericson, the executive director of regional educational service center LEARN said five years ago, students within LEARN's magnet schools advocated for the transition from Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day.

    “We believe that the transition to Indigenous People's Day was a positive step toward fostering cultural sensitivity and understanding among our students and families,” Ericson said. “It is an invitation to explore and appreciate the rich heritage of Indigenous peoples, acknowledging their enduring contributions to our society. We hope that this change will inspire thoughtful reflection, dialogue, and a deeper appreciation for the diversity that enriches our educational community.”

    At the state level, State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, has proposed legislation several times to enact Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but she said the bills did not get a public hearing. She said she is looking to have a conversation about it and plans to propose the legislation again.

    State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said she would again support the initiative.


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