An historic change: Holyoke Public Schools embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day

  • The Dean campus of Holyoke High School on, Wednesday, April 29, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • In this April 27, 2019 file photo, dancers enter at the Gathering of Nations, one of the world’s largest gatherings of Indigenous people in Albuquerque, N.M. Holyoke Public Schools is celebrating its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day today, joining a trend to move away from a day honoring Christopher Columbus. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2020 7:32:56 PM
Modified: 10/11/2020 7:32:46 PM

HOLYOKE — When Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas in 1492, he was greeted by Arawak men and women who brought gifts, water and food to the Italian explorer and his men. Columbus didn’t exactly return the favor.

“They would make fine servants,” Columbus wrote in his log at the time. “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

That’s exactly what Columbus and his men did, coming back on a second expedition and hopping between islands to enslave the Indigenous population. The Spaniards demanded gold — cutting off the hands of those who disobeyed — and worked people to death under a forced labor system Columbus implemented. Thus began the European colonization of the Americas and genocide of its Indigenous peoples. Millions died.

More than 500 years later, an historical reevaluation of Columbus’ legacy is taking place. And as Columbus Day is celebrated today, the Holyoke Public Schools district is the latest to announce that it is scrapping the holiday, replacing it instead with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“The celebration of Columbus Day enforces the historical misconception that Christopher Columbus discovered America,” Superintendent-receiver Alberto Vázquez Matos said in an email to families Thursday. “The first inhabitants of our country were Indigenous Americans. Columbus and other colonists used violence against generations of Indigenous Americans in their pursuit of colonization.”

That violence has long been reflected in the historical record. The primary source of information from that time, the writings of the priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, details the colonizers’ cruelty.

In his “Historia de Las Indias,” Las Casas — one of the first colonizers to arrive in the Americas — says the Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” He said he saw 7,000 children die in three months in Cuba, their mothers too overworked and hungry to nurse them, while husbands and wives were too exhausted to procreate.

“In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk,” Las Casas wrote in his “History of the Indies.” “And in short time, this land which was so great, so powerful and so fertile ... was depopulated.”

In his email to families, Vázquez Matos said the district is working to correct its school curriculum to reflect the historical facts about Columbus and the colonization of the Americas.

“For example, as part of the seventh-grade ethnic studies program, students are studying European Colonialism with a focus on the story of Columbus,” he wrote. “Students examine contact between Indigenous peoples and the Spanish Conquistadors in order to study how bias shapes the writing of history and, therefore, our understanding of the world.”

Holyoke is not the first to make the change to Indigenous Peoples’ Day locally. In 2016, Amherst’s Town Meeting approved a resolution written by middle school students that made the town the first in the state to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Northampton City Council made a similar change days later. Vermont and Maine have also changed the holiday in recent years.

Rhonda Anderson, the western Massachusetts member of the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs, congratulated and thanked Holyoke Public Schools for making what she said was a much-needed change.

“This change represents the recognition of the Indigenous people that continue to thrive on this continent despite centuries of intentional genocide and intentional cultural genocide,” Anderson said. “We certainly do not need to be observing a holiday that celebrates a man who brought colonialism, slave trade, genocide, and the erasure of the accurate histories of Indigenous Peoples.”

Columbus Day became a holiday in 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. President Benjamin Harrison declared the holiday a year after a mob in New Orleans lynched 11 Italian immigrants. The day was embraced by Italian Americans, allowing them to include themselves in the country’s origin myths and, as the historian Danielle Battisti writes, “rewrite American history with Italians playing a formative role in the nation-building narrative.”

But in 1992, weeks before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, Indigenous activists convinced the city council in Berkeley, California, to become the first U.S. city to ditch Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The list of municipalities and states to follow suit has grown since, with Holyoke schools joining this year.

“HPS is closed in observance of this holiday that is celebrated across the United States,” Vázquez Matos said. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day offers us a time to honor and reflect on the histories and culture of Indigenous Americans.”


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