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Durham minister: Time to stop honoring Columbus, celebrate 'indigenous peoples' instead

Union Leader Correspondent

June 07. 2017 9:27PM
Durham's Neal Ferris wants the town to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, and spoke about it during Wednesday's Human Rights Commission meeting. 

DURHAM — An 82-year-old retired minister is encouraging officials in the town of Durham to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and wants them to put pressure on the state to follow suit.

Durham resident Neal Ferris, who served as a minister emeritus at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Exeter, says it is time to stop honoring Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean for Spain and is credited with initializing the European colonization of the Americas.

“All he wanted was gold. He did murder a lot of people. He did enslave a lot of people,” Ferris said during a Human Rights Commission meeting at Durham Town Hall Wednesday morning. “We have to find some way of facing the truth and living with it.”

Ferris said even if Columbus was not personally responsible for what happened to Native Americans after his discovery of the New World, he set the wheels in motion for what Ferris calls an attempted genocide of the people who lived here long before explorers and colonists arrived.

Ferris says Vermont has replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and a number of communities throughout the country have done so as well. He thinks if Durham follows suit, other towns and cities in the state may adopt the change, and New Hampshire could join Vermont in standing up for Native American people here in New England.

Members of the Human Rights Commission were skeptical. Town administrator Todd Selig said growing up in New Hampshire, he remembers having positive feelings about Christopher Columbus and his contributions to society.

“He was what we would call today an entrepreneur,” Selig said.

Selig said he thinks leaders should find a way to keep Columbus Day, and celebrate indigenous people’s history on a separate day. Other members of the commission agreed, and said they want to preserve and celebrate the history of both Europeans and Native Americans.

Town council Chairman Kitty Marple said people in Durham are starting to wake up to the sensitivities of minority groups who feel their voices are not heard by mainstream society. She referenced the ongoing controversy about the mural at the local post office, which has a panel depicting a Native American with a torch looking at a Garrison-style home. That panel, named “Cruel Adversity,” is meant to depict a scene from the 1694 Oyster River Massacre.

Marple said Native American people had their own problems, and she is upset by people who call those opposed to removing the mural racists and bigots.

At the end of the meeting, it was decided that the issue of declaring Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and the continuing issues with the controversial mural, should be brought to the New Hampshire Commission of Native American Affairs, which is meeting at the Durham Police Department on July 11. No further action was taken.

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