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Wellesley voters back referendum question renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston's North End was vandalized by someone who knocked the head off the memorial last year.
The statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston's North End was vandalized by someone who knocked the head off the memorial last year.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Wellesley voters on March 2 backed a referendum ballot question that called for replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a holiday intended to recognize the “humanity, culture and history” of the nation’s native inhabitants.

The nonbinding question appeared on the ballot for the town’s municipal election, which included candidates for local office.

According to final results released by Wellesley’s town clerk, 2,358 voters backed renaming the holiday in honor of Indigenous peoples. The town clerk’s office reported that 2,057 voters opposed the measure.

The town clerk’s office reported 27 percent of Wellesley’s 17,890 active voters participated in the March 2 election.

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The referendum question asked voters whether the town’s Select Board, referred to as “selectmen” on the ballot, should proclaim the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, “and cease to recognize Columbus Day in Wellesley in recognition of the position of Indigenous Peoples as native to these lands, and the suffering they faced during and after the European conquest?”

The town’s Select Board, which recently released a statement on anti-racism and anti-bias, would have to decide whether to change the holiday’s name in Wellesley.

Wellesley resident Joan Aandeg, a member of the Committee for Indigenous Peoples Day Wellesley, said in a statement to the Globe that renaming the holiday calls attention to the genocidal history of colonization.

“Columbus Day is emblematic of the settler colonial process: claiming other people’s homelands and lives, enslaving and exploiting people and land to extract wealth, removing Indigenous people and replacing them with settlers, and celebrating comfortable mythology over reality,” Aandeg said.

Aandeg is a member of the Lac Courtes Oreilles Band of the Lake Superior Anishinaabeg, a tribe located in Wisconsin.

“Changing the name to Indigenous Peoples Day sends the message that we are no longer tolerating the dehumanization and erasure of Indigenous and other oppressed peoples,” Aandeg said.

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Unite Wellesley, a group that sought to keep Columbus Day, released a statement Wednesday morning on Facebook thanking supporters and expressing disappointment over the vote’s outcome.

The group had called the referendum vote divisive and disrespectful of the town’s Italian-American community. On social media, the group highlighted instances of past discrimination faced by Italian immigrants to the United States. Columbus Day, the group said, is a day to honor Italian heritage.

They backed honoring Indigenous peoples with National Native American Heritage Day, which coincides with Black Friday, historically the biggest shopping day of the year. November is also National Native American Heritage Month.

“We should respect and honor all cultures if we truly desire to be a unified and welcoming community,” Unite Wellesley said. “We encourage those who love our town and embrace our common humanity to get involved and to speak out.”

Many cities across the country, plus about a dozen states and the nation’s capital, celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In Massachusetts, those communities include Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, Amherst, Northampton, and Great Barrington.

In November, Newton’s City Council voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers have filed bills supporting a statewide change that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, said Mahtowin Munro, who is a member of the Lakota tribe and the coleader of United American Indians of New England.

The state Legislature in January also voted to form a commission to study and recommend permanent changes to the state seal and motto, which also appear on the state flag. The imagery depicts a Colonist’s arm holding a sword over an Algonquian man.

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Munro said in an email there is now much more awareness of the impact of white supremacy, the need to address related images like Columbus and the Confederate flag, and to combat racism in Massachusetts.

“Because Indigenous peoples are doing such profound work on issues relating to climate justice and caretaking traditional lands, it has become increasingly clear as well that Indigenous voices and perspectives need to be honored and centered instead of ignored,” she said.


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