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Indigenous Peoples' Day Gaining Recognition, With Mashpee Out Front

Sarah Mizes-Tan

Today is legally Columbus Day in Massachusetts, but a movement is gaining steam to abandon the holiday and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

Mashpee is one of several communities honoring native peoples instead of the 15th century explorer Christopher Columbus, who has become increasingly associated with the brutal killing and enslavement of indigenous people by Europeans.

Brian Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal councilman, said the change is long overdue.

“I believe it's important now, more than ever, for us to start righting a lot of the wrongs, the past generations and historical trauma, and things that have happened to all indigenous people across the world,” he said.

The Mashpee public schools have a day off for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Mashpee Town Meeting voted last year to recognize the holiday. Other communities that recognize it include Amherst, Brookline, Cambridge, Northampton, and Somerville.

“We obviously need a lot more towns to sign on,” Weeden said. “And we also need to work with the indigenous peoples’ movement to get the commonwealth hopefully to take the appropriate steps and actions.”

Defenders of Columbus Day say it commemorates his ambition and navigational achievements; some celebrate it as an Italian heritage day.

Several states, including Vermont and Maine, recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day statewide, but Massachusetts does not.

A bill has been filed in the state Legislature to mark the day with an annual proclamation from the governor.

State Senator Julian Cyr is a co-sponsor of the House bill. The formal legislative session has ended for the year, and his office says there is presently no Senate bill.

Weeden said he wants the public to understand that native people are still struggling for fair treatment.

“One of the biggest issues facing the indigenous people of our tribe is the fact that the federal government wants to take our land out of trust and challenge us,” he said.

A federal court battle is ongoing over whether the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe qualified to have tribal land taken into trust when the Interior Department took the land into trust in 2015.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.