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Shumlin Issues Proclamation Renaming Columbus Day As Indigenous People's Day

A man in a parking lot
Howard Weiss-Tisman
VPR file
Rich Holschuh is a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and he asked Gov. Peter Shumlin to issue an executive proclamation re-naming Columbus Day as Indigenous People's Day. Holschuh is also pushing for a change in Brattleboro.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has issued an executive proclamation re-naming this year's Columbus Day holiday as Indigenous People's Day.The governor's action came just two days after the Brattleboro Select Board voted against putting a similar question on the Town Meeting warning.

Rich Holschuh is a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and for a long time he's wanted Vermont to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day.

Cities such as Seattle and Berkeley have made the change, and Holschuh says Brattleboro, where he lives, would be a good place to jumpstart a statewide initiative.

"The first British settlement in Vermont was in Brattleboro, at Fort Dummer, 1724," he says. "And that being the case, if Brattleboro was the first town to reverse that policy and embrace the indigenous people and their heritage and their contributions, I think it would be kind of a perfect completion of the circle and get us pointed back in the right direction and move forward."

Last week Holschuh asked the Brattleboro Select Board to put a question on next year's Town Meeting Day warning, to see if Brattleboro voters would support changing the town holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day.
The board was split 3-2, with the majority saying supporters needed to gather about 400 signatures, as the town charter spells out, if they wanted to put the question before voters.

The board had the authority to put the question on the warning, but Select Board Chairman David Gartenstein says it shouldn't be up to the board to decide which politically-charged issues make it on to the ballot.

"When a public interest issue like this arises, it's better to proceed through the petition process," Gartenstein says. "By proceeding through the petition it takes the select board out of the middle of making a value judgment about whether the question is something we agree with or disagree with."

Holschuh didn't agree with the board's vote, and he left the meeting Tuesday night disappointed, and unconvinced that the board made the right move.

"This is what public officials are for," Holschuh says. "I see it as an abrogation of leadership. We're talking about a payroll holiday for town employees. This is something that the selectmen deal with all the time. They should have approved it themselves, and there's absolutely no reason why they wouldn't put it on the warning. What is the risk in that?"

The next day Holschuh went on to Gov. Shumlin's web page and found a link to the place where suggestions are made for executive proclamations.

It was less than a week before Columbus Day. Shumlin's web site said it can take some time for the governor to make an executive proclamation, if he's behind the suggestion in the first place.

"I actually did not expect him to do anything," he says. "It was the last minute. On the proclamation page it says, 'Give us four to six weeks to think about it,' and it was only four days before the day. Then last night I opened up my inbox and there's the letter. I was stunned, but very happy."

The governor's proclamation says Vermont recognizes that it was founded and is built upon lands first inhabited by the indigenous people of this region, the Abenaki, and the state honors and acknowledges their ancestors and allies, both past and present.

The proclamation doesn't permanently change the name. It will take legislative action to do that.

So the town of Brattleboro may or may not be the first to move away from calling the second Monday in October Columbus Day.

But Holschuh thinks it's pretty cool that what could be the state's first step toward recognizing Indigenous People's Day did start in Brattleboro.

"Here we are in Brattleboro: Wantastegok. An amazing place," Holschuh says. "There are amazing things out there in the woods and hills that I see. They're still here. And the spirit of the Abenaki are still here. And the phrase is, 'Askwa n'daoldibna iodali,' We are still here, in Alnôbaôdwawôgan, the Abenaki language. The circle is coming around."

Holschuh says he's already started collecting signatures to get the question on the Town Meeting Day warning and he expects to turn in a full petition at the next select board meeting.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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