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Discontent evident on Columbus Day as two views of a holiday converge

A plastic garbage bag was found draped over the head of the Christopher Columbus statue Monday morning at Prospect Park on Buffalo’s West Side. Scrawled in chalk on the pavement nearby: “Columbus was a slaver & a rapist.”

A commemorative wreath placed Sunday at the base of the statue by the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York was not disturbed.

The federation represents 26 Italian-American associations in the area. Peter R. LoJacono, federation president, denounced the vandalism.

“We don’t support the vandalism of city property in any way, shape or form,” LoJacono said Monday. “People can protest peacefully. Any form of vandalism or violence is not called for and should be dealt with appropriately by authorities.”

It was a Columbus Day of discontent in some parts of Buffalo on Monday as members of the Seneca Nation of Indians organized marches, flotillas, a rally and a bike ride to boost the growing movement to change the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day.

Demonstrators gathered for a rally and news conference at the Buffalo District headquarters of the Army Corps of Engineers on Niagara Street to stand in solidarity with members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe from North Dakota who are protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, said Agnes F. Williams of Indigenous Women’s Initiatives. Some 180 tribes throughout the country organized similar demonstrations against the proposed pipeline because they say it threatens water purity and tribal land.

Williams identified the Corps as the arm of federal government that implements “all the taking of Indian land without adequate compensation.”

Williams, a member of the Seneca Nation, helped organize the events that included a march from Corps offices to the foot of West Ferry, where a fleet of kayaks and canoes paddled the Black Rock Channel to Unity Island. The afternoon’s events continued with a 2 p.m. pot luck dinner and drumming on Unity Island, and a Slow Roll bike ride from Columbus Park to Unity Island.

The rally on Niagara started with the traditional Thanksgiving Address for the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The address reflects the relationship with the Earth.

Native American radio personality John Kane served as master of ceremonies for the rally, which was scheduled to include a speech by Jessica Bauer Walker, second vice president and health committee chairwoman of the Buffalo Public Schools District Parent Coordinating Council.

In September, the parent council voted unanimously to ask the Buffalo Public Schools to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day.

“My children are still taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ America and they go to International School PS 45,” Walker posted on her Facebook page. “This must stop. In a community as diverse as Buffalo, NY, there is no reason we cannot join with progressive cities and municipalities across the region and country to ask that Columbus Day become Indigenous Heritage Day.”

The drive has thus far gathered 1,222 signatures.

LoJacono suggested that both groups can sit at the holiday table.

“We are perfectly happy to celebrate Indigenous Peoples, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in celebration of their contributions but certainly not at the expense of a day revered by Italian-Americans,” LoJacono said. “Let us remember that this is not a day that celebrates just Columbus, but also the many contributions of Italian-Americans to this country who have also experienced prejudice from our early immigrants forward.”

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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