DURHAM — The town is the first in New Hampshire to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to be celebrated on Columbus Day, after town councilors approved the idea on Monday.
Town Administrator Todd Selig said Tuesday the federal Columbus Day holiday, this year on Oct. 9 cannot be replaced because it is a federal holiday.
Town councilors thought it appropriate to recognize hardships that befell indigenous peoples because of European exploration, and voted to establish the new observance.
The council was considering a resolution put forth by the town’s human rights commission that would add The Age of Exploration and Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the local holiday calendar, but “The Age of Exploration” was dropped during an hour-long council discussion, Selig said.
“Not only is it appropriate to our local history, but also to recognize and value indigenous people everywhere,” Selig said in a statement. “The designation will encourage people to learn more about the legacy of Christopher Columbus and the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ while also recognizing the devastating effects of colonialism on indigenous peoples.”
Prior to Monday’s vote, councilors received a letter in opposition from Antonio Sestito, state president of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, Order of Sons of Italy in America, who said members of his organization are “shocked and appalled” by any measure that diminishes Christopher Columbus and his contributions to the development of the western world.
The group has 5,500 members in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
“Although it is generally understood that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to step foot on American soil, it goes without saying that his voyage is the one that changed the world. It was he who opened up a new land of opportunity to the oppressed masses of Europe. His arrival marks the time in history when Europeans began to make important worldly contributions, such as those in arts, law, government and economics that have become the basic foundations of this great nation. It is for those contributions that the United States government recognized our favorite son of Genoa, Italy,” Sestito wrote.
His letter continued:
“Though we recognize that gruesome incidents took place and cannot be condoned, this was no different from how Europeans treated other Europeans or Native Americans treated other Native Americans at that point in time. Today's concept of individual rights was simply nonexistent during the 15th century. Does the Town of Durham plan on desecrating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and our forefathers at large for owning slaves their entire lives?”
The vote came while town officials also are working with postal officials on a mural in the local post office that depicts a Native American preparing to torch a settler’s house.
Members of the Native American community call the mural panel offensive, and want it removed. Selig and post office officials are trying to come up with proper wording to add to the mural to reflect the historical significance of the panels.