BELFAST, Maine — Goodbye, Columbus.
Belfast city councilors voted this week at a regular meeting to do away with the name Columbus Day and to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day, making the midcoast city the first municipality in the state to rename the holiday.
“If we act, our town can be a beacon for the rest of Maine and New England,” Belfast resident Diane Oltarzewski told councilors Tuesday night. “Though the Columbus holiday is only a symbol, it is a painful one. How much better to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day, as has been the case in many cities and towns across the country … let’s never forget who was here first. It’s time we let the world know what we value and where we stand.”
BDN efforts Thursday to speak with representatives of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy nations were not immediately successful.
Oltarzewski presented councilors with a petition in favor of the change that had been signed by about 250 residents, then gave a brief speech regarding the holiday and its history. After she spoke, City Councilor Eric Sanders made a motion to change the name of the holiday.
“I think the time is now,” he said.
Councilors then spent a few minutes debating the change and whether or not a city council has the authority to rename a federal holiday.
“We’re sworn to uphold the United States of America,” Councilor John Arrison said. “Where do we get to be the rebels? I’m just interested in appropriate city methods of carrying this out.”
In fact, other municipalities around the country have gone ahead and made the change, beginning with Berkeley, California, which dropped the moniker Columbus Day in 1992. Since then, the trend has gradually picked up steam, according to a Reuters article published in October, and the progressive California community has been joined over the years by Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Bexar County, Texas.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1934, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and with a lot of help from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization. The holiday long has been seen as a day to celebrate Italian heritage in America. John Viola, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Italian American Foundation, told Reuters in October that renaming Columbus Day dishonors the country’s 25 million Italian Americans and their ancestors.
“By default, we’re like the collateral damage of this trend,” he told Reuters.
Belfast City Councilor Mary Mortier said before casting her vote in favor of the name change that no hard feelings against Italian Americans are meant.
“I don’t think by any means it should be taken that we are belittling or affronting people of Italian American heritage,” she said. “But we are overdue.”
Mortier, Sanders, Mike Hurley and Neal Harkness voted in favor of the change, with Arrison abstaining.
Oltarzewski told the councilors that when Columbus landed in 1492 on the island of Hispaniola, it was the beginning of the end for the native Taino people who lived there.
“They were enslaved, converted or tortured, and ultimately wiped out,” she said. “Columbus Day has come to signify only this pitiless humanity. One mother of a fifth-grader told me he came home wondering why it was a holiday at all.”