Amherst adopts Indigenous Peoples Day

Staff Writer
Published: 5/19/2016 3:21:56 AM

AMHERST — People who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans will be recognized annually in Amherst on the second Monday of October.

At the sixth session of annual Town Meeting on Wednesday, members overwhelmingly approved, by voice vote, a resolution written by Amherst Regional Middle School students that makes Amherst the first community in the state to formally replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

“We believe when we are celebrating Columbus we believe we are celebrating genocide,” said eighth grader Aarti Lamberg, a member of the group known as Student Advocates for Change.

Lamberg said the solution the students came up with was to keep the holiday, but to celebrate someone else. She observed that the Amherst School Committee already agreed to change the name of the holiday on the school calendar.

The group began its work as a classroom project in the U.S. History I class taught by social studies teacher Matthew Venditti. In November, students made a presentation to the Human Rights Commission, and in February they spoke to Democratic state Rep. Ellen Story, of Amherst, about the idea. At the time, Story said she would be happy to bring the renaming concept to the Legislature if Town Meeting endorsed it.

Eighth grader Innis Gallagher said honoring Columbus is not a progressive concept and does nofit with Amherst’s ideals. Recognizing the inhabitants affected by the arrival of Europeans is more just, he said.

“We hope this will be honoring a special culture that has been neglected and oppressed for a long time,” Gallagher said.

Though there was widespread support for the change, Robert Biagi of Precinct 2 made an amendment that Amherst continue to celebrate Columbus on the second Monday in October, and that Indigenous Peoples Day instead be the following Monday.

“I disagree with what’s been said. To me, Christopher Columbus was a person of his time,” Biagi said.

Columbus, Biagi said, should be celebrated as a multicultural hero, that people of various ethnicities were on his ships, and that Columbus remains important, not only to Italian-Americans, but to the modern world for advancing the migration of people.

"We need to be careful about applying 21st-century morality to the 15th century," Biagi said.

Walter Wolnik of Precinct 5 said the U.S. Treasury's decision to have both abolitionist Harriet Tubman and U.S. president and slave owner Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill is a more appropriate way to deal with controversial historical figures.

"I am for both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day," Wolnik said.

Gerry Weiss of Precinct 8 disagreed that moral judgments on history should not be made. "Many things were in the past we can take a moral stand on today, and we should," Weiss said.

Biagi's amendment was rejected by voice vote.

Eighth grader Christina Wehrli said she appreciates that Town Meeting recognizes the need to make this change.

"These are the people he oppressed and these are the people who need to be celebrated," Wehrli said.

After the students made their initial presentation there was applause in the middle school auditorium, where Town Meeting is held, prompting moderator James Pistrang to remind members that audible support or opposition to a discussion is not allowed.

This led parents and other observers, as well as some Town Meeting members, to hold their hands in the air and make silent clapping motions when the measure was adopted.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

 




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