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After Months Of Debate, Pittsfield, MA Schools Celebrate First Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Josh Landes
The corner of Columbs Avenue and North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

For the first time in its history, the public schools of Pittsfield, Massachusetts are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day today. Not everyone in town welcomes the change.

Pittsfield’s contentious debate over today — this day, October 8th — began on January 23rd. That was the night the Pittsfield School Committee first raised the topic of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“And at that time, the night of the vote, we only had three people speak, and those three people were in favor of our decision to change the school calendar," said School Committee President Katherine Yon. "And after that, it was sort of an uprising from the Italian community in Pittsfield.”

The outcry that followed led to a second meeting in May — which Yon felt went well — but it was quickly gathering steam outside of the committee.

“They also went to the city council, so this was starting to expand,” she explained.

The June 12th Pittsfield City Council Meeting served as the issue’s climactic public moment, pitting an older generation of Italian-American residents against increasing skepticism about a holiday celebrating a man whose brutality was well documented even in his own time.

“I personally feel, and I believe others of Italian heritage feel, that students need to be made aware of indigenous people, but also of Christopher Columbus’s achievements as well," said City councilor Anthony Simonelli at the June meeting, defending the century explorer’s record as he brought a petition to condemn the school committee’s decision before the council. It was an emotional meeting, with citizens from either side of the issue delivering passionate statements in the opening minutes. City Council Vice President John Krol defended the committee’s decision.

“Columbus’s acts of cruelty were so unspeakable and legendary even in his own day — not in 2018, in his own day — the governor in Spain slapped him and his two brothers into chains and shipped them off to Spain to answer for their crimes against the natives,” said Krol at the meeting.

Ultimately, the council rejected the petition, and the committee reaffirmed its decision at a July 12th meeting.

Flash forward to today.

“It’s not a day that we particularly took time to celebrate in the past, and I think that the school committee and other leaders in the community were looking to make a statement about who we celebrate and who we don’t," said Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless. He says his takeaway from the bitter dispute was about two sides of an issue finding resolution.

“I think therein really lies the teachable moment about how do we with any issue take deeply oppositional beliefs and come to some conclusion," he told WAMC, "even if the conclusion is agreeing to disagree in respectful ways that don’t sever the relationship between parties.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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