Should Columbus Day become Indigenous Peoples Day?
On Board Online • September 18, 2017
By Cathy Woodruff
Amid wider recognition of disturbing aspects of Christopher Columbus’ legacy, some local school boards are being asked to consider a question they might never have imagined when they took office: Should the school district stop observing the second Monday in October as Columbus Day and, instead, call it Indigenous Peoples Day?
This issue has been debated by at least four school boards in New York State. Two have answered yes, one has answered no, and one – the Southampton school district in Suffolk County –decided the holiday did not need a name on the school calendar. The Southhampton decision followed an emotional community debate that included representatives of Italian-American groups and the Shinnecock Nation.
The story of Columbus is much more complex and controversial than the familiar, sing-song rhyme: In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
That year, 1492, is about all that remains uncontested in the traditional story of Columbus.
The explorer who sailed westward across the Atlantic Ocean on behalf of Spanish monarchs no longer is considered to be the person who “discovered” America, and it’s now clear that he never even reached North America. His legacy has been tarnished by the role he played in establishing the transatlantic slave trade and enabling the European conquest of native peoples in the Caribbean and the American continents.
But many who advocate retaining the Columbus Day designation say it remains an important vehicle for honoring contributions of Italian-Americans, in general, and specific contributions by Columbus as a navigator and explorer. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt created the first federal observance of the day in 1937, it has evolved into an opportunity to celebrate Italian-American culture with events that include New York City’s annual Columbus Day parade.
The Williamsville school district in Erie County considered renaming Columbus Day in March, following several months of study that included a presentation and recommendations to the board from a committee of students. Members of the public and representatives of Italian-American and Native American organizations weighed in as well.
The differing perspectives on Columbus as a historical figure led several Williamsville board members to lament a conundrum that they said appeared destined to “pit one culture against another,” regardless of sincere and honorable intentions on both sides.
Ultimately, the Williamsville board voted not to change the designation of Columbus Day. One issue in the debate was whether such a decision falls fairly within the roles and responsibilities of a school board.
“I stressed to the board that this is not a school district issue,” Shawn Lemay, who was a member of the board in March and now is president, told On Board. “This is a name on a calendar for a federal holiday. If we want to change the name, we need to approach it where it originates.”
But Toni Vazquez, a board member who proposed the change when she was president, saw it as an issue entirely appropriate for the board. “It is an education issue,” she said before casting her vote. “It absolutely focuses on all native and non-native children in our school district.”
It’s unclear whether the issue will arise again in Williamsville, where Vazquez was the lone vote in favor of a change. But Superintendent Scott Martzloff and board members including Lemay say the debate was, nonetheless, meaningful and worthwhile.
“It did allow the district to review its curriculum to assure that we are teaching the facts and not the fluff to our students,” Lemay said. “In the end, the board believed that changing the name on a calendar was not necessary, as our schools do teach the true story of Columbus to our students.”
“This is a conversation that boards can have, but it can be difficult because there are strong feelings among constituents that can make the conversation hard,” said Martzloff.
The Niagara-Wheatfield school district, a few miles to the north of Williamsville in Niagara County, voted to do away with the Columbus Day designation a year ago after representatives of the student council and the school’s Native American Club encouraged the change.
Niagara-Wheatfield Superintendent Daniel Ljiljanich described the change in his district as “a very student-driven initiative.” Students also were among the catalysts in several other districts that have adopted the Indigenous Peoples Day alternative, including Plattsburgh.
And the experience of the Levittown School Board in Nassau County illustrates what a sensitive matter the designation of any holidays can be, even when there’s only a perception that school leaders are tinkering with them.
On Aug. 23, Levittown Superintendent Tonie McDonald announced that this year’s printed district calendar would eliminate all references to holidays and simply indicate days when the schools are closed. She noted the number of holidays celebrated, a risk of accidentally omitting some of them, and the fact that schools are open on some holidays and closed on others. The holiday designations were to be included on the online version of the calendar.
The next day, the district was accused on its Facebook page of “politically correct pandering” by a local councilwoman who specifically cited Easter, Christmas, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving as holidays that should continue to be printed on the calendars. Other critics complained about the lack of Veterans Day and Memorial Day identifications.
On Aug. 25, the district released a new statement saying that calendars would be reprinted with the names of all holidays. The previous decision “has unfortunately caused concern among some members of our community,” the statement explained, adding “Please understand that it was never our intention to upset or offend anyone with this change. … Our goal was to create an operationally efficient and user-friendly educational resource for our community.”
Levittown School Board President Peggy Marenghi told On Board that the objections appeared to stem from misunderstandings, and the original decision was inspired only by the reasons noted in the original statement and some practical concerns about space on the printed versions of the calendar.
“It had nothing to do with religion. It had nothing to do with politics,” Marenghi said. “This is a closed issue for Levittown.”