Akron lacrosse players took a stand in March when they refused to play a game against the Lancaster Redskins because of their name, and now their hometown has made another statement.
The Newstead Town Board, consisting of two Conservatives, two Republicans and one Democrat, unanimously designated the second Monday of every October – otherwise known as Columbus Day – as Indigenous Peoples Day.
“The purpose is to celebrate and honor natives,” said Councilman Justin Rooney, a self-described Irish politician, who made the proposal several months ago. “I think the time has come to really look at Columbus Day.”
The small rural town in the northeast corner of Erie County, which includes a portion of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, is the first in the area, and perhaps the state, to designate a day to recognize the contributions of Native Americans.
The decision was closely watched and appreciated by the Senecas who live there and nearby.
“It’s really important for our people,” said Rebecca Parker, a Native American, who was in Town Hall the night the Town Board made its decision.
The unanimous vote occurred on a warm Tuesday evening in May, about three hours after the Akron Tigers lacrosse team won the Section 6 championship on Grand Island. Many parents and players hurried back from the game to attend the Town Board meeting.
Parker’s son, Cole Reuben, was there, too, with some of his Tigers teammates to see history made inside the Newstead Town Hall.
“My kids will never know what it’s like to go through what we went through with Columbus Day,” he told his mother.
After the meeting, the Tonawanda Senecas formed a line in front of the board, each one shaking every board member’s hand in gratitude.
“It’s a great gesture. We’re very honored and humbled by it,” Parker said.
The Village of Akron, located in the town, followed not long after.
The local community joins Seattle and Minneapolis in designating Indigenous Peoples Day. South Dakota recognizes the second Monday in October as Native Americans Day, an official state holiday.
Rooney said the idea was to make Columbus Day, which is observed nationally, a little more “bearable” for Native Americans, who do not see it as a day of celebration. A committee, with members appointed by the town and Tonawanda Band of Senecas, is to be formed to figure out how to mark the day and to develop educational programs throughout the year. One thing that has been mentioned is changing the headdress on the Indian in the town seal from one with feathers running to the man’s knees to the traditional Seneca gustoweh, with a single feather standing up.
New York is one of 23 states that give employees the day off on Columbus Day, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Although Rooney might want to, he said Newstead is not doing away with Columbus Day, which is a state holiday. But he would like Indigenous Peoples Day to spread to communities throughout the state.
“We didn’t make Columbus Day in Newstead. It came down from the federal government and state. It’s incumbent upon them to change that,” he said. “We did what we could at the local level.”
Native Americans are pleasantly surprised when they hear about it.
“I think it’s a really big step and a positive one,” said Chief Darwin Hill of the Tonawanda Band of Senecas.
“We really appreciate it,” said Parker, who directs the Tonawanda Band of Senecas department that cares for the sick and elderly. “We really bear the scars of all of our ancestors. It’s really a recognition of the trauma we’ve been through. There really was no American dream for us.”
Natives and non-natives in the community have known each other for years and generally get along.
“We’ve developed a good relationship. We know them, and they know us,” said Hill, who has spoken before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “It’s been good, and this is almost like the topping on the cake.”
Reception of the news
While Native Americans are pleased with the designation, some white residents don’t know what to make of it. Many had not heard about it, and details are slim on what might happen on the day. No one said anything negative in interviews with The Buffalo News, but they did not want to go on the record with their comments, either, and shop owners did not want to offend any of their customers.
Many, native and non-native, have no trouble remembering the rhyme from school that in 1492 Italian explorer Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue,” but he is not universally revered. Columbus is credited – and blamed – for opening up the Americas for European colonization while trying to find an alternate route to Asia.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday in 1937, but it was Buffalonian Mariano A. Lucca, a crusader for Columbus, who is credited with Columbus Day being designated as an official Monday federal holiday in 1971.
Today the Federation of Italian-American Societies in Western New York promotes the contributions of Italians and Italian-American heritage with the annual Columbus Day parade in Buffalo and other activities.
Peter LoJacono, president of the federation, said the groups celebrate Columbus for his courage, intelligence and great navigational skills in making several trips to Central America, which was new to Europeans. They had not heard of the Newstead action, but he said they embrace all cultures, and welcome others recognizing their own cultures.
“We encourage all people to celebrate their heritage as they see fit,” LoJacono said.
Columbus Day not only recognizes Christopher Columbus, but the contributions of all Italians and Italian-Americans.
“This, for us, will always be Columbus Day,” LoJacono said. “It’s a day we have always celebrated. We will continue to do so.”
But Native Americans see little to celebrate about Columbus, who they blame for enslaving and killing native people.
“Your heroes are not our heroes,” said Seneca Al Parker, a historian who spoke for the Council of Chiefs on the Lancaster mascot issue. “As indigenous people, why would we recognize a person of his stature? ... Acknowledging the native people versus what he did is much more significant.”
Newstead, a rural town of 8,600, was founded in 1823, while the Senecas were one of the original members of the Iroquois Confederacy. The band was recognized by the federal government as a separate tribe from the Seneca Nation of Indians in 1857. Hill said about 1,000 live on the reservation today.
The designation of Indigenous People’s Day is not the first collaboration between the government and the Senecas.
The Tonawanda Indian Community House just outside town, which provides space for a clinic, senior lunch program, recreation and meeting rooms, was built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s on land in the Genesee County Town of Alabama purchased by American Indians. Filled with native items and memorabilia, it is maintained by the state Office of Children and Family Services.
A large photo on the wall shows nearly two dozen Seneca artisans who worked on the building, including relatives of those who live in the reservation.
Athletes take a stand
The connection between many native and non-natives is made in Akron Central Schools, where about 11 percent of the 1,500 students are Native American. The district stood behind its varsity boys lacrosse team this spring when the team boycotted a nonleague game with Lancaster to protest the use of the now-retired Redskins mascot.
The majority of the members of the lacrosse squad, which was the top-scoring high school team in the country this year, are Native American. Many credit them with helping to bring the mascot issue to a head in Lancaster, which had planned to have a months-long community discussion about changing its mascot.
After Akron canceled its lacrosse game with Lancaster, Niagara Wheatfield and Lake Shore Central lacrosse teams, which also have a number of Native American students, did the same.
Ten days later, the Redskins name was retired in Lancaster.
“They took a stand on it and they acted on it,” Parker said. “Akron was the catalyst to create this chain reaction. They had enough.”
“We responded to what was going on in Lancaster,” Superintendent Kevin Shanley said. “We just acted on what we thought was right for our district.”
The School Board also plans to discuss the town’s designation of Indigenous Peoples Day next month, he said.
“I think it’s a good idea to move away from the glorification of Columbus,” said Kristin Groff, human resources manager for the Wolves Den smoke shop on the reservation.
She said she remembers learning in school that Columbus discovered America, but not the negatives that came from contact with him and Europeans.
“They left out the slavery, rape and pillage,” added her brother, Vincent Groff.
On Oct. 12, the first observance of Indigenous Peoples Day, Rooney will have just a few months more to serve as councilman. He said he is leaving office at the end of the year, and wanted to establish Indigenous People Day before he goes. He said he considers himself Irish, although his great-grandparents were Native American. But he said his ancestry had nothing to do with his efforts today.
“You look at me, I’m an Irish guy and I’ve got dark eyes. The situation was I wanted to do something that was right,” Rooney said. “We’re still trying to honor a guy who didn’t discover this country. There’s so many other Italian-Americans that could be celebrated for doing great things.”