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The city of Boston has seen its last Columbus Day.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey signed an executive order Wednesday afternoon to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day — beginning this upcoming Monday, Oct. 11.
“This is a small step in a long journey around justice in our city,” Janey told reporters after signing the order at Boston City Hall.
Boston joins over two dozen communities in Massachusetts — including the neighboring municipalities of Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, and Somerville — and a handful of states, like Vermont and Maine, that celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day (some, like Brookline, technically observe both).
In her prepared remarks, Janey noted that the city has played a significant role in United States history, from the American Revolution to the abolitionist movement to becoming “a training ground for modern day civil rights leaders.”
However, she also noted that Boston — which sits on land once primarily inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc people — has a “complicated history” that includes “displacement and oppression of indigenous peoples, who lived here for thousands of years.”
“Our shared history in the city is tainted by colonial violence and systemic exclusion,” Janey said. “As the current residents of this land, the city of Boston has an opportunity and an obligation to honor the cultures, experiences, and achievements of indigenous people.”
Columbus Day remains recognized as a holiday at the state and federal level.
While efforts to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day have been long-running, Janey’s executive order Wednesday came as a somewhat sudden surprise. The city held no public hearings on the change beforehand, and the order was only announced as part of Janey’s public schedule Tuesday night.
Former mayor Marty Walsh had resisted the push, though he did decide to relocate and replace a North End statue of Christopher Columbus after it was vandalized last summer.
Some local Italian-Americans have joined the push to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, citing documentation of the Italian explorer’s participation in the brutalization and sex trafficking of indigenous people. However, the effort has also faced strong pushback from groups like the Italian-American Alliance, who say they’re being “discriminated against.”
Columbus Day was first nationally recognized in 1892 — the 400th anniversary of his first voyage to North America — following the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans, and later legally enshrined as an annual holiday in 1934 following a lobbying campaign by the Knights of Columbus fraternal group.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents the North End and the “largest Italian American community” in Boston, criticized Janey’s move Wednesday afternoon on Facebook.
“Today’s unilateral action by the acting mayor was a surprise to me and I don’t believe it encourages the honest, transparent, healing conversation we need,” she wrote.
Edwards, who has endorsed City Councilor Michelle Wu in the mayoral race, wrote that “with the right conversation, led by our new elected mayor,” the city could find a way to honor both indigenous people and Italian Americans (Janey, who as City Council president replaced Walsh as acting mayor in March, finished fourth in the city’s preliminary mayoral election last month and did not advance).
Janey’s signing ceremony Wednesday was also briefly interrupted by a woman who yelled that the change left out Italian-Americans.
“Italian-Americans have a rich history in the city of Boston and certainly in our nation,” Janey responded. “We should celebrate all cultures, and I want to remind everyone here: Justice is not a zero-sum game. We can lift up the experiences of indigenous peoples, and we can also respect Italian-Americans.”
In addition to internal conversations with local indigenous leaders, Janey said she had spoken with representatives of the Italian community, “particularly in the North End,” as part of the “hard work” of engaging neighbors on the subject.
The Italian-American Alliance disputes this, however. Brian Patacchiola, one of the group’s board members, said Janey’s office “did not reach out to us or the other major Italian-American groups” or respond to any of their inquiries on the subject over the past year. The Italian-American Alliance has argued for recognizing Indigenous People’s Day on a date other than Columbus Day.
“We support the plight and struggle of First Nations Peoples, but not at the expense of others,” Patacchiola said in an email Wednesday afternoon.
That said, some argue that celebrating Columbus Day comes at the expense of Indigenous People. Heather Leavell, a co-founder of the Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day, said in a statement released by Janey’s office that Columbus’s legacy is characterized by “conquest, slavery, and genocide.”
“Any association with Christopher Columbus diminishes our culture and does not honor the struggles and contributions of our ancestors or the long tradition of human rights activism in the Italian American community,” Lovell said.
Janey also urged Boston residents to take “meaningful actions to uphold the rights of indigenous communities.”
Her office said an internal working group of city employees has developed a series of proposals that also include land acknowledgment, increased city support for indigenous youth and families, increased public representation of indigenous peoples in City Hall, and an increased focus on housing, economic, and workforce development for tribal members.
“Signing an executive order is easy,” Janey said. “What is incumbent upon all of us is that we take the steps necessary to understand our complicated history to make sure that we’re lifting up those who for too long have been marginalized, and that we do create space for all of us to enjoy the city of Boston.”
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