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In Newton, a bitter clash erupts over renaming Columbus Day

The Christopher Columbus statue that stood in Boston’s North End was beheaded in June and removed afterward.
The Christopher Columbus statue that stood in Boston’s North End was beheaded in June and removed afterward.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In Newton, a proposal by advocates and a group of city councilors to replace Columbus Day with a holiday honoring Indigenous peoples has met stiff opposition from those who dub the effort an insult to the city’s Italian-American residents.

Advocates said officials must end the tribute to Christopher Columbus, a figure whose legacy has come under historical rebuke for his treatment of Native people following his arrival in the Bahamas in 1492.

The proposal in Newton would replace references to the Columbus holiday with Indigenous Peoples' Day, a move that supporters like Darlene Flores said is needed for Newton to start becoming a welcoming place for Native American residents.

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“It would be a first step in recognizing that we are here, we are part of this community, and that we’re welcomed,” said Flores, 43, who grew up in Newton and is a member of the Taíno Higuayagua tribe. “What would that do? It would bring pride.”

But critics, including Leonard Gentile, a councilor-at-large from Auburndale, have argued Columbus Day — which falls on Oct. 12 this year — is a point of deep meaning for the city’s Italian-American community. The issue, he said, is very personal to him.

“I’m here to tell you, that as an Italian-American, it is an insult to me, and it is an insult to a lot of other residents of the city of Newton,” Gentile said. “The complete elimination of a holiday that has come to represent a celebration of people’s Italian heritage is insulting.”

Newton’s proposal would ask Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and the School Committee to change references to Columbus Day in city materials to Indigenous Peoples' Day.

On Monday night, however, the City Council voted 17-6 following nearly an hour of debate to send the resolution back to a subcommittee to schedule a public hearing.

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Mahtowin Munro, a member of the Lakota tribe and co-leader of United American Indians of New England, criticized officials for not voting on the proposal.

Munro is the lead organizer of IndigenousPeoplesDayMA.org, which is advocating to replace the Columbus holiday with one honoring Native people statewide.

“It’s disappointing that Native people have to display our trauma over the genocide started by Columbus instead of the city just doing the right thing,” Munro said in an e-mail to the Globe.

The proposal comes on the heels of other efforts to address racial injustice in Newton. The city itself still uses place names with Native origins like Waban and Nonantum, and Fuller, who launched a task force to address local issues with policing, also has announced an effort to reconsider Native American imagery on Newton’s city seal.

In a statement released by a spokeswoman, Fuller said: “As with the Ad Hoc City Seal Working Group, we want to make sure what we call our holidays portrays the identity, spirit and values of Newton. I look forward to listening to our residents and hearing the vote of our City Council.”

Currently, 11 states and Washington, D.C., celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day, along with dozens of cities nationwide. In Massachusetts, Indigenous Peoples' Day has replaced a day honoring Columbus in communities like Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, Amherst, Northampton, Great Barrington, and within Pittsfield’s school system.

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Opposition to a holiday honoring Columbus is long-standing; critics' assessment of his role in the European conquest of the Americas paints him as a man who exploited Native people and whose actions contributed to the deaths of millions.

Munro, with IndigenousPeoplesDayMA.org, said in an e-mail that glorifying Columbus sends a cruel message to Indigenous children: They live in a society that thinks it is fine to pretend Indigenous genocide never happened and celebrates “the European invader who started it all.”

She said many Native Americans feel solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and kinship with Black people.

“It’s unfortunate that sometimes people show up who refuse to listen and learn, who defend Columbus with fantasy versions of history,” Munro said.

Across the country, calls to end Columbus tributes have grown louder as the country begins to address racial justice issues raised by demonstrations. In Boston, a statue of Columbus was vandalized earlier this year, and city officials removed the monument while they decide what to do with it.

A few days before the Newton vote Monday, other opponents of the change criticized the proposal during a public meeting.

Albert Cecchinelli, who favored keeping Columbus Day, said the nation already honors Indigenous people, and said the Columbus holiday is inseparable from Italian-Americans.

“This is not a vote to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day. This is a vote to denigrate every Italian-American who lives in Newton, and far beyond this city’s border. It is insulting,” Cecchinelli said.

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Not all members of the region’s Italian-American community see the Columbus holiday in a positive light.

Michelle Chalmers, 52, of Wellesley has been active in an effort in that town to enact Indigenous Peoples' Day in place of Columbus Day. She’s also a founder of the Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day group, and was among the signers of a letter to Newton councilors supporting the holiday change in the city.

“It bothers me so much that our Italian ancestry is being used as a scapegoat for white supremacy,” Chalmers said in a phone interview.

Columbus Day, she said, “needs to go.”

The Italian-American group, Chalmers and the other signers said, was formed to amplify the voices of Italians who feel no pride in celebrating Columbus. Too often, debates about Columbus are centered around the feelings and concerns of Italian-Americans, the group said in the letter to Newton officials.

Flores, a US Army veteran whose family has lived in Newton for generations, has three children in the city’s schools. Her children know the history of Columbus, she said, and refer to him as a “bad man.”

Flores said that they want the discussion over the holiday to expand to other issues, including greater teaching about the histories of Native Americans, and how their cultures continue to contribute to their home communities.

“I hope Newton makes the correct decision,” Flores said. “And other neighboring cities can do the same.”

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.