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"Goodbye, Columbus." Buffalo schools now celebrate indigenous peoples, Italian heritage

Angelica A. Morrison/WBFO News

The widespread movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is now playing out in Buffalo Public Schools.

After hearing from Native American parent and student advocates, the Buffalo Board of Education approved an official name change for Monday’s holiday back in August. An initial suggestion to keep part of the existing name did not go over well.

“They said that they wanted to have it like Christopher Columbus/Indigenous Day and we said, ‘Absolutely not,’” treasurer of Buffalo Public Schools’ Native American Parent/Student Committee Celina Irene told WBFO.

“We said, ‘Just leave it as it is or change it, but we’re not going to have half-Christopher Columbus, half-Indigenous Day.’”

Facing resistance from some members of Buffalo’s Italian American community, the school board settled on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day. The resolution also directed Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash to “develop a community contest involving students to inform the Board about the appropriate naming of the second Monday in October.”

It’s a solution not everyone is happy about.

Credit Buffalo Board of Education
The Buffalo Board of Education approved an official name change for Monday’s holiday in August.

“They want students and parents to create a research group and, I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t even wrap my head around it,” Irene said. “I’m insulted by the whole thing, like it’s ridiculous.”

“We take no issue with Native Americans whatsoever,” said Peter LaJacono, president of the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York. “If we share the day, you know, we will recognize our end and I’m sure they will recognize their end, but I truly believe that there are enough days on the calendar for everybody to have their day and everybody can celebrate whom they wish.”

LaJacono spoke to WBFO at Buffalo’s kick off ceremony for Italian Heritage Month, which New York State celebrates each October. He said he believed the perfect time for Indigenous Peoples’ Day would be in November, the national Native American Heritage Month.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Peter LaJacono, at podium, is president of the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York.

Calls to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day date back to a 1977 United Nations conference on discrimination against indigenous populations in the Americas. Proponents for the new holiday argue that Columbus’ legacy of violent conquest and the decimation of Native Americans is nothing to celebrate. They also point out that Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas, and that you can’t “discover” lands where people are already living.

“The history of Columbus has been incredibly, I want to say, whitewashed, in a sense. To say that he discovered America implies that there weren’t already entire civilizations that were already here,” said Samantha Nephew, a community activist and member of the Seneca Nation of Indians who helped lead the campaign for Buffalo Public Schools to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“We know the real history behind Columbus and what that meant for my lineage. I just felt that it was important for future generations to have Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a way to have a conversation about what it means being indigenous in this country.”

Irene said the sole recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day would show support for a community that struggles with a long legacy of intergenerational trauma.

Credit Angelica A. Morrison/WBFO News
A City worker removes paint from Buffalo's statue of Christopher Columbus after a 2018 protest.

“Our kids are lost,” she said. “We have a long way to go, and so this holiday is just a small step, you know what I mean?”

LaJacono said the day isn’t just about the name. He also said Italian Americans were only bestowed a holiday in order to make amends for the extreme prejudice they faced when immigrating to the U.S. and a mass lynching of Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891.

“The name Columbus was chosen because I guess he was the most well-known at the time Italian having to do with this hemisphere. This is a day for Italian Americans that we choose to celebrate our heritage and everything that’s great and wonderful about our heritage.”

Buffalo Board of Education President Sharon Belton-Cottman said she knows the district is never going to make everyone happy.

“The best laid plans of mice and men are always going to be flawed in the eyes of certain people,” she told WBFO. “We’re going to celebrate our diversity and we hope the adults in the equation learn to do the same.”

Anne Botticelli, the district’s chief academic officer, said this presents an exciting opportunity to continue the conversation around cultural and linguistic diversity in Buffalo Public Schools. She also said the process of coming up with options for the name of the holiday moving forward will be as student-driven as possible.

“We really want to help the students look at multiple perspectives, think like a historian, do research [and] really get invested in the work.”

A similar effort by students in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District led their school board to unanimously approve replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016. It also inspired an effort to do the same in Williamsville in 2017, but that effort failed.

“When I tell you that it was so visceral in that board room… it was horrible. It scared my fellow board members,” said Toni Vazquez, who was the Williamsville school board president at the time.

Vazquez said she “couldn’t believe that such vitriol was unfolding before my eyes regarding this topic.” Opponents of the name change even went so far as to insult Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at board meetings because Vazquez is African American.

“They said, ‘Well, if you’re going to insult our great Columbus, Christopher Columbus, we will insult your Martin Luther King.’”

Vazquez ended up casting the only vote in favor of renaming the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But she said she’s still proud of her efforts, and that she’s inspired to see Buffalo trying to find a compromise.

The district is still finalizing its timeline for seeking community and student feedback, but the resolution instructed Superintendent Cash to relay the feedback it gathers to the school board during a work session at some point this school year.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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