Persuaded by the arguments made by a group of high school students, Portsmouth City Council voted Monday to change the name of the Columbus Day holiday.

Members of the We Speak Social Justice Club at Portsmouth High School spoke during Monday's meeting in support of changing the October holiday to just "Indigenous People's Day." Two years ago, the council voted to call the holiday by both names.

Upcoming junior Emily Stokel outlined three requests of city council:

  • Permanently refer to the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day (not alongside Columbus Day) on the city calendar
  • Make regular, intentional land and culture acknowledgments and recognitions prior to city meetings and events
  • Take other actions to support the Council’s commitment to being a "racial justice municipality and provide a safe, equitable, and inclusive community for all who visit and live in Portsmouth."

Stokel said during the meeting that while that initial step was appreciated, it does not acknowledge the issue that celebrating Columbus Day contradicts the intent of Indigenous People's Day.

"Continuing to celebrate Christopher Columbus, who committed serious atrocities and massacres among the indigenous populations he encountered, is unjust and cruel,” Stokel said during the meeting.

Stokel said the intent of the name change is not to deny Italians a chance to celebrate their acceptance as immigrants.

"However, we need to be able to revise and rethink our past, present, and future treatment of others and our customs as we become more of our history," Stokel said. "Our intent truly is not to put two groups against each other, but to heal and embrace our native American population as part of Portsmouth. It does not feel right to honor someone who has inflicted so much harm on people who have such a major role in the fabric of the history of our city."

Mayor Robert Carrier and leaders of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, Committee for Racial Equity and Inclusion members with a flag that will fly at Dover City Hall on Monday.
Mayor Robert Carrier and leaders of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, Committee for Racial Equity and Inclusion members with a flag that will fly at Dover City Hall on Monday (City of Dover)
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Councilor Josh Denton said he spoke with the city's negotiator and said the change would not affect any collective bargaining agreements. City attorney Robert Sullivan said the state will continue to call the holiday Columbus Day, but a municipality may legally rename the day.

The council suspended its rules to vote on We Speak's petition and approved the change by an 8-1 vote.

Beth Moreau, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said before her vote that she was concerned about "discounting Italian heritage", especially after urban renewal in Portsmouth. Moreau said she supported a suggestion by another speaker at the meeting to call the holiday "Discovery of the Americas Day", which includes all heritages.

"I don't want to discount anyone. My fear in doing this is 'are we discounting other heritages of Portsmouth?'I want to be all inclusive," Moreau said.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNH

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