Guest speaker discusses historical relevance of holiday
By Barbara Taormina
REVERE – The Human Rights Commission devoted its last meeting on Oct. 7 to a circle discussion on Indigenous Peoples’ Day aka Columbus Day, led by Irene Strong Oak Lefebve, an American Indian of Maliseet and Mi’kmag descent and executive director at the Visionary B.E.A.R. Circle Intertribal Coalition.
Strong Oak began the discussion by recounting in detail the story of the landing of the Mayflower, the real story. She talked about the impressions and apprehensions the English settlers and members of the Wampanoag tribe might have felt. She described how the Native Americans supported the settlers and taught them how to survive in the new environment. “For a while, 50 years or so, people are working together,” she told the circle. “When people need each other, they get along pretty well.”
But gradually, more and more settlers arrived and took more and more land and resources. “They tried to negotiate peace, but pretty soon negotiations fell apart.”
Strong Oak went on to talk about the arrival of the Puritans. “A lot of violence was done in the name of manifest destiny or a superior people,” she said, adding, “Some people think that way still and that’s the importance of acknowledging our history.”
Members of the commission and visitors thanked her and agreed more unbiased education is needed to understand the real history of the United Sates and indigenous people. “We were taught certain things in school and I never gave it much thought till my college years,” said Fire Department Chief Chris Bright, a member of the commission. “In recent years, these are conversations that have been percolating. It’s great to have these conversations and really speak the truth. Things are not going to change like a light switch. But Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a space for everybody to celebrate everybody.”
Other members of the commission agreed it is important to learn more. They acknowledged that indigenous people in the United States and other countries laid the groundwork for modern society and culture. They agreed Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to recognize all people are equal and deserving of respect.
In her talk, Strong Oak did not spare Christopher Columbus, whom she called a tactician of genocide, a rapist and a cruel person in need of healing. She said Native Americans throughout the country see all the streets, highways and cities named Columbus and it is a constant reminder that they were conquered because colonists wanted their trees.
“It’s possible, likely that Columbus wasn’t Italian,” said Strong Oak. She and members of the commission wondered why a day was dedicated to someone who doesn’t represent the Italian community.
Commission members agreed but acknowledged that Columbus Day has been an important day celebrated by the Italian-American community. Commission member Ralph DeCicco said the day has always been for people of Italian descent, and he didn’t think there would be much push back to change it to Italian Heritage Day. Other commission members felt their experience with the Italian American community was positive and deserved a better figurehead than Columbus.
But the emphasis of the circle discussion was recognizing the lasting contribution of indigenous people and how that recognition fuels the need and desire for equity and diversity.