At last night’s regular meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard, Item 10G on the agenda (submitted by this author) asked for a resolution to change the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Several people came out in support (and spoke to the topic), but the end result was a defeat (3-2 vote) of any type of support for the initiative. Rather than repeat the entire story of the evening’s exchange, I will quote the able commentary of Chris Grotke, of iBrattleboro, from his posting here. At the end of the quoted story, I have added my inline comment.
“Rich Holschuh submitted a request to the selectboard to formally act on a non-binding resolution passed at Representative Town Meeting in March of 2016. The action would proclaim the second Monday of each October as “Indigenous People’s Day,” rather than Columbus Day.
Board members were given the first opportunity to speak on the issue, and the majority were against approving it.
David Gartenstein questioned whether the original decision at Representative Town Meeting even had a quorum in the first place. (Note: They did have a quorum.) He felt signatures should be gathered to petition to put the issue before the voting public, and that the entire population should decide rather than the Selectboard.
Dick DeGray said the issue of not having a quorum raised questions. “I don’t feel we can vote on this,” he said.
Kate O’Connor agreed that it should be a town wide decision. “It’s a big thing to change a day, and making a decision on behalf of the entire town.”
“I concur with Kate,“ said John Allen.
David Schoales was the only member to disagree. “I’d like to see us do this. We can go around, but it is simple and straightforward to make a statement on this.” He suggested approving it now, and putting it up for a general vote later.
DeGray cautioned that if it were a town-wide ballot vote, it would be non-binding. He suggested it be sent to Representative Town Meeting instead.
At that point, someone named William in the audience asked a simple question. “Why do they want to change the day?” Since it hadn’t been discussed, David Gartenstein read the text provided.
The resolution read:
“Whereas, Indigenous People’s Day was first proposed in 1977 by a delegation of Native Nations to the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas; and
Whereas, a growing number of cities and towns in the United States have recognized the second Monday of October as “Indigenous People’s Day,” reimagining Columbus Day as an opportunity to celebrate indigenous heritage and resiliency; and
Whereas, the Town of Brattleboro recognizes the historic, cultural, and contemporary significance of the Indigenous People’s of the lands that later became known as the Americas, including Vermont and Brattleboro, and values the many contributions of these peoples; and
Whereas, the Town of Brattleboro recognizes that it was chartered and is built upon lands first inhabited by the Indigenous Peoples of this region, the Sokwakiak Abenaki and their ancestors, and wishes to acknowledge and honor these members of the community, past and present.
Now, therefore, the Selectboard of the Town of Brattleboro does hereby proclaim the second Monday of October to be “Indigenous People’s Day and strongly encourages public institutions, businesses, organizations, and citizens to recognize and support this designation, affirming the Town’s commitment to demonstrate appreciation for this land’s First Peoples.”
Rich Holschuh, the requester, introduced himself by saying he lived in the south part of town and served on the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs, “We still have native people here.”
He said he likes to be both positive and progressive, and that “charity begins at home, with small steps.” He felt the board could approve the motion. “We’re not sticking our neck out, and are not alone.” He said it was part of a movement growing across the nation. And while neighbors Amherst and Northampton have passed similar resolutions, no Vermont town has done this yet “not even the people’s republic of Burlington,” he joked. “We could do it tonight.”
Ralph Meima agreed and felt taking tis action would allow word to get out “rather than lose another year.” He felt it urgent that Brattleboro act now to put ourselves first.
Other agreed. Sherry Stewart said it was “long overdue” and would put us on the right side of history. “It’s a matter of respect and honor.”
William said he felt it should go to a town-wide vote.
Joe Rivers said it was “time for our elected representatives to stand,” and that “this should be an easy vote.” He encouraged the board to make the statement of truth that Europeans took land and resources from the Abenaki.
Sensing little shift in the view of the board, Meima offered a compromise. “Would it be possible to proclaim just this Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day,” he asked, then later have it voted as a proclamation to be perpetuated?
Holschuh like that idea, and the idea of putting it up for a vote. “It will pass.”
None of these arguments swayed the board. Gartenstein talked of core town operations and staying out of issues like this, O’Connor wanted everyone to be able to to weigh in, and Allen felt it was a personal issue for people. “There are lots of different ways to look at this,” he said.
Schoales pressed for a motion to, at least, skip the petition process and put the issue before Representative Town Meeting. “We make value judgements. All issues aren’t equal. I can’t see any reason to wait. We’re here because things like this come up.”
DeGray reiterated his concern about the lack of a quorum, and wanted the town to vote on it. He also said the media never covered it and no one knew about the last minute decision made by Town Meeting representatives. He supported Schoales in trying to get it on the Representative Town meeting agenda, but in the end the motion failed 3-2.
Here’s our coverage of RTM 2016, noting the quorum for the non-binding decision on Indigenous Peoples Day at the end of the meeting.
Here’s another story done after announcing it specifically and more widely to the public. Over 820 reads, too, as I write this.
End quote. Thank you Chris.
Thank you Chris for your coverage – accurately and succinctly reported. There will be immediate followup to this graphic example of abrogation of leadership responsibility. This type of action is exactly appropriate for an elected official: to demonstrate an awareness and sensitivity to the progress of society, and lead by example. This is demonstrated at all levels of community – well, it can and should be.
As Dick DeGray alluded toward the end of the discussion, every item under consideration stands on its own merits and must pass muster; although initially opposed, he swung his vote to affirmative (too little, too late) despite Chair David Gartenstein’s wariness of precedent and taking a position on an “issue.” It was pointed out that the Board votes on “issues” constantly, and that this was a paper argument. As a matter of fact, although it became apparent that there was a consensus toward appreciating the sentiment of the resolution for change – in other words, tacit approval, other than Gartenstein who remained equivocal and aloof. But no one, other than David Schoales, would back that up with action. It was quite amazing to witness the wiggling and excuses.
Two board members stated that this was a matter of personal conviction and should be decided by the voters. This is completely valid. However, it is also a matter of public policy, governance, and social responsibility. The topic of discussion is a civic holiday, on the public payroll, and codified into our cultural mores. This is exactly what elected leaders deal with, on a regular basis. It’s their job. When Ralph Meima offered a balanced solution, to make the proclamation by the Board, and then place it on the Warning for ratification or comment at RTM next spring, it seemed to offer a safe compromise. But, no, they couldn’t even do that.
The final form of the motion, made by Schoales, was to ask the Board to simply place it on the Warning for consideration by the Town Meeting Reps. This would allow for a small gesture of leadership by recognizing the validity of the request, and at the same time, enabling the full will of the people (already amply demonstrated by last year’s non-binding approval) to make the change in a clear and democratic fashion. This too failed, by a 2-3 vote. It was a pathetic and shameful moment. I am so sorry.