The Palo Alto City Council voted 7-0 to name Oct. 10 Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day, replacing the previous title of Columbus Day. The vote happened at the council’s Sept. 12 meeting.
Council member Greer Stone said the name change is related to the historical context surrounding Christopher Columbus.
“I always felt very against recognizing a man like Columbus who committed unspeakable acts against the Indigenous populations in the Americas and began a genocide,” Stone said. “The name change realigns Palo Alto with what our values are. We are a tolerant, progressive community that values diversity and the dignity of human life. And those are all things that Christopher Columbus does not represent.”
Stone said Palo Alto’s mayor and vice mayor first introduced a proposal in March to recognize holidays they haven’t before. In addition to recommending Holocaust Remembrance Day and Armenian Genocide Remembrance day, Stone said he recommended changing the name of Columbus Day.
“There wasn’t enough support at the time to simply adopt (the change), so the decision was to refer to the Human Relations Commission to discuss that in addition to several other holidays,” Stone said.
HRC Chair Kaloma Smith said the commissioners used a drafted framework to help determine the levels of celebrations holidays should have. The framework considers service, celebration, awareness, remembrance and affinity groups.
“We started asking questions like, why are we celebrating, what are the communities impacted, is this a day of remembrance or service, and how does this resonate in certain communities,” Smith said.
Smith said the commission also examined the value potential celebratory events would have on residents.
“We look at each holiday and make sure (the celebration) is not just performative, but really having a profound community impact,” Smith said. “I believe holidays are important and how, why and where you celebrate is critical.”
Smith also said community engagement was a factor in making the recommendation to the City Council.
“Although we do have people of Italian descent (in) Palo Alto, we’re historically not an Italian neighborhood,” Smith said. “(And) although we do have people that are of Indigenous descent here, it’s not like we’re a hotbed of activity for that. But I think as we evolve as a community and culture, we have to start asking ourselves, ‘What have we done from historical ignorance or historical precedent versus what matches our current reality?’” Smith said.
The Indigenous Peoples Club president and senior William Barney is a descendant of the Karuk Tribe based in Siskiyou County and said he is not entirely happy with the city council’s decision. He said adding Italian Heritage Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day takes away from the historical importance of recognizing native cultures.
“This date is one of the only national holidays recognizing Indigenous peoples and it is still not even federally recognized,” Barney said. “Native American culture dives deep into our country’s history, and the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day was meant to recognize that.”
But Stone said the addition of Italian Heritage Day was necessary to get a majority vote from the city council.
“I know some council members were uncomfortable with the idea of removing Columbus Day as a celebration,” Stone said. “I thought it was reasonable that many Italian Americans essentially use Columbus Day as an unofficial Italian heritage day. It was with that understanding and the need to reach a compromise in order to get a majority vote that we moved to rename Columbus Day.”
However, Smith said the combined holiday may take away from fully celebrating each group.
“We had a missed opportunity to really honor our indigenous population,” Smith said. “We also had a missed opportunity to do something more robust on other days of the year for the Italian community, and we had a missed opportunity to talk about how to value both of them in healthy ways. I think we as a community need to find spaces to honor Italian American heritage. But this is not that.”