MIT considering renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day
UA, AISES, and other campus organizations advocate for change
In May 2016, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously to name Indigenous Peoples’ Day a city holiday, which the city will celebrate instead of Columbus Day. Two years later, the second Monday of October remains as Columbus Day on MIT’s official calendars while student activists and campus diversity offices urge the institute to follow in the City of Cambridge’s footsteps.
The MIT American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) is currently communicating with Alyce Johnson, MIT’s Manager of Staff Diversity and Inclusion and Interim Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO), about the potential for MIT to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. As Luke Bastian ’21, a representative of AISES, reports, Ms. Johnson has expressed optimism “about there being a name change in time for next year.”
“I have been working with a team of several faculty, students, and staff to discuss a possible change in MIT’s observance of ‘Columbus Day’ to ‘Indigenous People’s Day.’” Ms. Johnson wrote in an email to The Tech. “So far, our work has included discussion, research and benchmarking.”
More work lies ahead over the next few weeks for Ms. Johnson, who described plans to meet with supportive faculty and members of AISES, who will “send statements detailing [their]
Columbus Day opinions” for her to share with faculty. Afterwards, she will organize an opportunity for “community members interested in this topic” to provide their thoughts and comments.
A troubled history
MIT began observing Columbus Day since 1937, the very year it became a federal holiday. The institute expanded the long weekend during school year of 1975–76 and students now enjoy the following Tuesday off as well unless Labor Day falls on Sept. 1, 6, or 7.
Controversy has surrounded Columbus Day ever since the holiday was established. Poor Italian immigrants, marginalized and considered non-white by Anglo-Americans in the early 20th century, celebrated Columbus as a symbol of cultural and religious pride. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a federal holiday at their urging, he was opposed by nativists who protested its immigrant, Catholic origins.
More recently, criticism of Columbus Day has mainly focused on Columbus’s role in the displacement, enslavement, and killing of Native people. Native American activists have advocated that Indigenous People’s Day replace Columbus Day since as early as 1977, at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. In 1990, South Dakota became the first state in the United States to celebrate Native American Day instead of Columbus Day. A year later, Berkeley, California became the first city to follow suit, renaming the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Since then, over 50 cities and several other states in the United States have chosen to celebrate Native people this October.
The debate in local context
Although official MIT calendars currently refer to Columbus Day, some faculty have taken renaming the holiday into their own hands. The 6.02 course website lists two days of classes as cancelled due to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Professor Katrina LaCurtis declined to comment on this decision.
MIT Libraries maintain their own online calendar where they, too, celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In an email to The Tech, Director of Libraries Chris Bourg described MIT Libraries’ decision to go against the MIT administration’s example as “consistent with Libraries’ values of diversity, inclusion and social justice.” In addition, she pointed out that Cambridge, Boston, Brookline, and Somerville, the communities that MIT Libraries serve, all honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Ms. Bourg affirmed MIT Libraries’ support for a “campus-wide conversation” on whether MIT should celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as well.
Should MIT make the switch, the Institute’s move would echo that of Harvard last year. In 2017, Harvard University added Indigenous Peoples’ Day to its calendar, acknowledging both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October. The university administration abstained from releasing a reason for the change.
A year before Harvard in 2016, Cambridge established Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a city holiday to celebrate in place of Columbus Day. Nadeem Mazen, the Cambridge City Councillor who spearheaded the effort to rename Columbus Day, said to the Boston Globe that naming the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day would “reclaim the day” from Columbus and give it back to the people he killed. Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, an Italian-American, approved of the change, calling it a personal “cleansing.” He added, “I do not want Christopher Columbus to be representing my culture.”
Yet despite the unanimous vote, protests from members of the Italian-American community forced the Cambridge City Council to come to a compromise a mere week after the move was passed. To the City Council, community members described feeling disrespected and “punished” as a result of the city taking away a holiday celebrating contributions of Italian immigrants and the discrimination they faced. In recognition of their concerns, the council established Italian Heritage Day on Oct. 1 of each year.
In September 2017, the MIT Undergraduate Association (UA) passed a unanimous statement urging MIT to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day “in order to foster an inclusive community on our campus and show support for traditionally marginalized communities”. According to Kathryn Jiang ’20, Vice President of the UA, they then sent the statement to Gus Burkett, the Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Community. Dean Burkett did not respond to The Tech’s inquiries on the results of that conversation in time for the publication of this article.
According to Bastian, AISES only got in touch with Ms. Johnson recently, after “emailing directly different members of the MIT administration including President Reif and receiving very little response” before this year.
For Bastian, MIT’s continued celebration of a man who committed atrocities against Native Americans felt disrespectful to Native students and “honestly, kind of puzzling.” Although Columbus facilitated a cultural exchange that “had an extremely large impact on history,” Bastian stated, “he himself does not seem worthy of celebration.”
Bastian, too, urged MIT to drop Columbus from the holiday’s name. Although the new name need not necessarily honor indigenous people, as November already exists as Native American Heritage Month, “doing what Cambridge has already done” would smooth the transition, he explained. Further, Bastian explained, a holiday named Indigenous Peoples’ Day would raise awareness and understanding for what he termed “an ignored population” and give them “a nice platform to share about our traditions with people eager to learn.”
This past Columbus Day, René Reyes ’22 wrote a guest column for The Tech on how Columbus and subsequent colonizers inflicted a wave of violence and disease that decreased the native population in the United States by a factor of 30 and “catalyzed one of the biggest atrocities in the history of mankind”.
Growing up in Costa Rica, Reyes had learned about “the atrocities that Christopher Columbus encouraged” overseas and was “slightly shocked” that Americans dedicated a holiday to him every year. In his guest column, Reyes emphasized his pride in his Hispanic identity, a heritage born of the Spanish colonization that Columbus catalyzed and the children of Spanish men and native women. And yet, Reyes wrote, he refused to ignore the “dark and shameful side” of this history and the current struggles of indigenous people whose land and opportunities are still being stolen.
In an email to The Tech, Reyes expressed support for MIT renaming Columbus Day to either Indigenous Peoples’ Day or another “more inclusive” name that “celebrates the resilience and survival of the victims of colonization.” He described the move as an important step towards healing past wounds. Removing Columbus’s name from the holiday, wrote Reyes, would “shift the focus of this day towards honoring our indigenous ancestors” and “finding common ground and making amends.”
When scrolling through social media and talking to his classmates, Reyes noticed that other students have also voiced similar criticisms of the name Columbus Day. “There have been several occasions where, upon mention of Columbus Day, people would correct me or others with the term ‘Indigenous People's Day,’” said Reyes.
MIT’s Latinos in Science & Engineering club also indicated support for renaming Columbus Day in an email to The Tech. They have not contacted MIT Administration about it.
The Tech also reached out to MITaly, MIT’s Italian student club on campus, due to Italian-Americans’ historical support of Columbus Day. Co-Presidents Gianpaolo Gobbo and Gherardo Vita declined to give a position on the issue of renaming the holiday. They cited an inability to speak on behalf of all club members and describe the complexities of Columbus’s part in the treatment of natives as requiring a “lengthy and in depth discussion.” However, they stated that MITaly would “remain open to discussion should MIT feel appropriate for [them] to get involved.”
In an email to The Tech, Kimberly Allen from the MIT News Office said that Ms. Alyce Johnson’s campaign is still in the early stages and requires “wider community engagement and faculty governance” before MIT administration makes any final decisions.” Ms. Allen encouraged “anyone interested in getting involved or sharing opinions on a possible change… to contact the ICEO office directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.”