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Buffalo rally to air causes of indigenous people on Columbus Day

A growing national backlash against the observance of Columbus Day is spreading to Buffalo, as local organizations advocating for Native American concerns seek to pressure the city to rename the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day.

Members and supporters of the groups are planning to gather Monday morning in Buffalo for a rally and “call to action” designed to bring awareness to the plight and challenges facing Native Americans both locally and across the country.

The advocacy groups are hoping to refocus attention on Native American culture and history, which they say has been ignored or disrespected for too long, even as tribes’ health and communities are threatened by oil and gas pipelines and other development projects.

“Our native principles focus on peace, power and righteousness,” said Michael Martin, executive director of Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, on Grant Street in Buffalo. “We want to ensure that our children and future generations can heal through appropriate knowledge, education and awareness.”

The groups intend to demonstrate “in solidarity” with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, which is fighting the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline that the tribe warns will contaminate water and desecrate sacred land. But they also will lobby city leaders and the Buffalo Public Schools to recognize a holiday to honor Native Americans on the second Monday in October, in place of Columbus Day, as part of a growing national movement.

The groups are circulating a petition, which already has 1,222 signatures, calling for the holiday to be renamed, to be presented to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and members of the Buffalo Common Council. “The City of Buffalo has a strong history of American Indian culture,” the petition reads. “It is time for the city to reflect and honor that tradition in order to progress, recognize and celebrate the history of Indigenous People.”

If they are successful, Buffalo would follow the towns of Newstead and Lewiston and the villages of Akron and Lewiston, which already celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, as does the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District.

“The movement in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline and Columbus Day is about indigenous people and our allies ensuring our land and our people are protected and respected,” said Agnes Williams, a leader with the Indigenous Women’s Initiative, whose office is on Delaware Avenue.

Williams said Native Americans are “invisible, because the way the history is written is that no one was here.”

“The textbooks are very skewed,” she said. “They say there’s no more native people in North America. That’s not true. We’re invisible and this is what we’re fighting. This invisibility is the way that our land and natural resources are being stolen by a few people to make a lot of money.”

The rally and news conference will be held at 11 a.m. in front of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Buffalo office at 1776 Niagara St. The groups will then march to Unity Island – formerly Squaw Island, renamed last year because it was viewed as a slur against Native American women – and will gather there for a potluck meal, kayaking, bike rides and other activities. Other participating organizations include Western New York Peace Center and District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo Public Schools.

Meanwhile, Brown spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge pointed to the mayor’s “good relationship and a strong record of support” with Native Americans, and his role in the naming of Unity Island.

Columbus Day has been a source of controversy in some communities for decades. The current movement to change it began in 1992 in Berkeley, Calif. Since then, it has spread rapidly, with at least four states – Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota – no longer celebrating Columbus Day. South Dakota officially celebrates Native American Day instead, while Hawaii celebrates Discoverers Day to commemorate the Polynesians who found the islands. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin issued a declaration last week to observe Monday as Indigenous Peoples Day in that state.

In the past two years, many cities also have adopted the new holiday, including Denver; Seattle; Minneapolis, St. Paul and Grand Rapids, Minn.; San Fernando, Calif.; Anchorage, Alaska; Portland and Eugene, Ore.; Olympia, Bainbridge Island and Yakima, Wash.; Traverse City, Mich.; Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M.; Asheville, N.C.; Belfast, Maine; Boulder and Durango, Colo.; Phoenix; and Cambridge, Mass.

“It is a federal holiday, but it’s starting as a local grass-roots movement and local communities are deciding they no longer want to call it Columbus Day,” Williams said.

Newstead Town Supervisor David Cummings said adopting the new holiday – while not fully abandoning Columbus Day – “was the right thing to do,” given the long-standing presence of Native Americans in the town. “They’re part of our community,” he said. “We go to school with them. We work with them.”

Monday’s rally also comes as support builds for the Standing Rock protest, which has attracted Native Americans from Hawaii to Florida, as well as representatives of indigenous nations worldwide, to create a gathering in North Dakota that is now bigger than most towns in the state. They’re opposing not just the pipeline itself, but the way they believe they’ve been treated for years by governments and big business bent on development and profits.

The planned 30-inch-diameter pipeline is supposed to stretch 1,172 miles from the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Ill., carrying 470,000 barrels of light sweet crude oil each day to major refining markets while reducing the use of rail and trucks. Proponents of the pipeline say it will be built to meet all safety standards, including where it would cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation. But tribal leaders don’t trust it, fearing the pipe will break and oil will pollute the environment, including their water source.

“There are a lot of pipelines that are breaking all over the place,” said Williams, a member of the Seneca Natiown, who lives on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. “It’s not like we’re making this up.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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