Bethlehem Board Mulls Renaming Columbus Day

The Bethlehem Select Board on Tuesday took numerous suggestions on where to spend federal stimulus dollars the town received, including using it to address deferred maintenance or help ease a storage crunch at Bethlehem Town Hall, pictured here. (Photo by Robert Blechl)

After voting last month to make the new Juneteenth federal holiday a paid day off for full-time town employees, the Bethlehem Select Board is mulling a request by residents to rename Columbus Day, a federal holiday observed on the second Monday in October and also a paid day off for full-time town staff, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Board members took up the discussion during their meeting on Monday and heard from two residents who were split on the proposal.

“I had sent this request back in October, following along what other towns in New Hampshire have put forth by supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day,” said Bethlehem resident Erin Talcott. “It’s been a call to action by the indigenous community in New Hampshire.”

Resident Chris McGrath said he doesn’t want to go into the history of it, but believes the town should not change it and said Columbus Day is still observed as such at the state level.

“If you’d like to change it, I ask for a town vote,” said McGrath. “I believe from my quick research today, some other communities changed it by a town vote. There are 25 signatures [needed] for a petition and we only have two people here tonight to discuss it. I’m old school, I like to keep things the same.”

In June 2021, Pres. Joe Biden declared Juneteenth, which commemorates the day of June 19, 1865, when the last African-American slaves were emancipated, as a new federal holiday, observed on the third Monday of June.

The federal government, from the executive branch, has been de-emphasizing Columbus Day and made a proclamation declaring Oct. 11, 2021, to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day, said Select Board member Veronica Morris.

It’s been ongoing and the town can follow the federal government, but the Columbus Day name hasn’t been changed in Congress, she said.

When the Bethlehem Select Board adopted Juneteenth as a holiday for Bethlehem town employees, the rationale was to adopt the federal standard rather than wait for the state, which has not recognized it as a holiday, to catch up, said Morris.

Select Board member Ayla Queiroga asked what’s different about Juneteenth and Columbus Day.

“I think partly because the state of New Hampshire has a history of being really, really awful, like Martin Luther King Day, and so jumping ahead on Juneteenth seemed reasonable because we dragged our feet for so long on Martin Luther King day,” said Morris. “We were the last state in the nation to recognize Martin Luther King Day.”

Queiroga said she’s concerned that board members are putting their views in front of what the state is doing and the board has already set a precedent with Juneteenth and it seems like the board is practicing favoritism.

“I think we should do what’s important for our town,” said Morris. “I kind of agree with you in some way with the precedent. But I don’t think we necessarily have to follow what the state does.”

If a day has been declared a federal holiday, the town can adopt it, she said.

Queiroga said she believes the board needs to ensure that the reason they’re doing it is consistent and not choosing one over another.

“All of them impact people,” she said.

“Vermont and Maine have at the state level changed their Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” said Morris. “New Hampshire has not … There’s like 13 states that have pushed forward on this and a bunch of others haven’t. I don’t feel like we have any big push.”

Select Board Chairman Bruce Caplain said in many he’s conflicted on the idea.

“A month ago, I probably would have said not to do it, and then we heard a woman speak at The Colonial [Theatre], an indigenous woman, and she was so powerful,” he said.

Caplain suggested the board reach out directly to the indigenous community in New Hampshire to get a better sense of what they would want rather than have a Select Board make decisions for them, similar to if the board were to make a rule or a day regarding the Jewish community it would behoove them to reach out to the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation for input.

Caplain suggested reaching out to the Native woman who spoke at The Colonial Theatre.

“She doesn’t speak for everyone, but I’d love to get her opinion on how to proceed maybe,” he said.

Giving a history on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Morris said in 1977 the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, a United Nations conference in Geneva, began discussions to replace Columbus Day in the Americas with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“So it goes back to the ’70s, this conversation and the indigenous peoples’ have been pretty much on board,” she said. “The states that have already made the change are the states with very large indigenous populations. New England is not that. We have few active tribal members in New England for reasons. There are some in Maine. We don’t have a lot of people in our state that we should necessarily talk to because of the circumstances that occurred.”

Talcott said she meets regularly with Paul and Denise Pouliot, who are among the leaders of the indigenous tribes in New Hampshire.

The Pouliots have met with people at the state level, and while they tried at the state level to rename Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day, they did not have success and their call to action is now on a community grassroots level, said Talcott.

“You’ve seen a lot of different towns in New Hampshire rename to Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” said Talcott. “They would be open to talking to people. Maybe people want to learn more and that leads to a town vote.”

Talcott said she wrote the request letter to the town of Bethlehem in response to the Pouliots requesting that people reach out to their local town boards in order to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and that’s the origin of her original request.

The board on Monday agreed to hold off on a decision until they first find indigenous people to speak with.

“I’d love to reach out to some of them and find the right people and maybe work with Erin and come back with a conversation about it,” said Caplain.

“If we’re going to reach out to groups who support it, maybe there is a group that would support keeping it [Columbus Day],” said McGrath, who suggested such a group also be brought into the conversation.

On Monday, Bethlehem’s full-time employees, numbering about 15, will have their first day off with pay for Juneteenth.

On Thursday, Select Board member April Hibberd said the board vote in May was to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday for town employees as part of an effort to show appreciation for town staff and show them that they’re valued without costing taxpayers a lot of money and also help meet ongoing challenges of employee recruitment and retention.

Columbus Day has been a paid day off for full-time Bethlehem town staff for a number of years.

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