Comerford-sponsored bill would drop Columbus Day, change to Indigenous Peoples Day in state

In this 2017 photo, the Christopher Columbus statue stands at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle in New York. Legislation in Massachusetts to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day was the subject of a hearing on Beacon Hill this week.

In this 2017 photo, the Christopher Columbus statue stands at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle in New York. Legislation in Massachusetts to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day was the subject of a hearing on Beacon Hill this week. AP


Staff Writer

Published: 10-06-2023 5:07 PM

Weeks of research into a change they would like to see in the world prompted students at Fort River School in Amherst to champion the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day becoming a state holiday.

This week, three sixth graders brought their expertise on the topic to a state legislative hearing, offering testimony on Senate and House bills that would officially remove Columbus Day as a holiday on the second Monday in October and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.

“We believe it is wrong to honor someone who treated Indigenous people in terrible ways,” sixth grader Elo Schwabe told the members of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

The Amherst students were among a number of speakers endorsing bills S.1976 and H.2989, sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Christine Barber, D-Somerville.

Amherst and Northampton have both been celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day since 2016, with Amherst’s designation coming by a vote of its former representative Town Meeting, and the Northampton City Council adopting a proclamation. In doing so, they became the first two communities in the state to remove Christopher Columbus from the calendar, having since been followed by a number of other communities, though not yet the state itself.

Comerford was the first to address the hearing as it got underway this week, speaking about the Indigenous Peoples Day bill, as well as other bills she has filed, including allowing multi-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms to be used in public buildings without getting a variance from the state plumbing code.

“Christopher Columbus did not discover the Americas,” Comerford said. “This is a myth, steeped in racism and violence, that has allowed history to credit a European man with discovering a land already teeming with societies.”

Comerford said Indigenous communities and tribal nations across the country and Massachusetts are calling on the Legislature to act, recognizing through their “courageous truth-telling” that the legacy of colonization is not worthy of extraordinary commemoration and memorialization of Columbus. In 20 states and the District of Columbia, Native American or Indigenous Peoples Day is observed, either in addition to or in replacement of Columbus Day, and in 2021 President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to formally commemorate Indigenous Peoples Day with a presidential proclamation.

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“I suggest Massachusetts must do the same,” Comerford said. “Let us change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, a holiday to honor those who first settled this land. This holiday will pay rightful tribute to the contributions of Indigenous people in Massachusetts, past, present and future.”

Over the course of the morning and afternoon, representatives from various organizations, individuals and Native American activists also spoke about the near genocide of tribal people that Columbus and his men encountered, and the enslaved Indigenous people shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, speaking of brutality of Columbus’ invasion. Having Indigenous Peoples Day replace Columbus Day is a matter of repair, healing and reconciliation they urged.

Whether the legislation will become law is unclear. Similar bills in the last legislative session were recommended favorably by the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

There are critics, including Rep. Jeffrey Rosario Turco, D-Winthrop, who likened the proposed legislation to throwing Italian people under the bus. Turco also called the bills offensive and “an unfortunate approach to solving this problem,” and referenced the horrors faced by Italian-Americans, including the 1891 lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans for the killing of the city’s police chief.

“There is no need to pit groups against each other,” Turco said.

He suggested that much of the anti-Columbus rhetoric is at colleges and universities, and suggested that to remedy the concerns over the welfare of Indigenous people, these institutions of higher learning should consider giving land back to Native American tribes. “If you really believe it, put your money where your mouth is,” Turco said.

Sen. Nick Collins, D-Boston, who chaired the legislative hearing on Tuesday, also asked for people to keep their rhetoric in check about Columbus, noting that there are multiple views of Columbus and that November has already been set aside as Native American Heritage Month.

Back in 2016, before bringing an article to Town Meeting so Amherst could begin marking Indigenous Peoples Day, eighth graders at Amherst Regional Middle School spoke about the topic to then-state Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst. Story told them she would support their measure in the state Legislature once it was approved by Town Meeting.

But Story said the challenge would be convincing the legislators of Italian heritage, as well as those concerned with change in general.

“If it was good enough for my grandparents, it’s good enough for you,” Story said at the time. “That’s sort of the attitude.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at