SANBORN – An Italian-American teacher and some Tuscarora Indian students created a movement that led the Niagara Wheatfield School Board last week to do away with the Columbus Day holiday.
Instead, the second Monday in October will be observed as Indigenous Peoples Day by the school district, the board decided.
That’s because Christopher Columbus, the Italian-born explorer who was sponsored by Spain when he “discovered” America in 1492, was a genocidal criminal, the board was convinced by a presentation by Quinna Hamby, a senior who is vice president of the school’s Native American Club.
Columbus never made it to the future United States. He never got closer than Cuba and the Bahamas, while Viking sailors are believed to have made it to North America 500 years before Columbus did.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a federal holiday for the first time in 1934, upon the lobbying of an Italian-American from Denver.
“The holiday was just invented to have an Italian hero image, but they just selected Christopher Columbus without looking at his history and what he stood for,” Hamby said. “We’re not asking you to stop celebrating who you are, but just don’t celebrate a man that represents hurting and killing a whole population of natives.”
High school Principal Timothy Carter said the coming events signboard at the high school will be changed to declare Oct. 10 a day off for Indigenous Peoples Day. The sign in front of Edward Town Middle School next door already carries that notice.
The Town of Lewiston, in which Niagara Wheatfield is located, declared Indigenous Peoples Day last year, as did the Village of Akron and the Town of Newstead, which, like Lewiston, contain an Indian reservation. The Tuscarora Indian Reservation begins right across Route 31 from the Niagara Wheatfield schools, and 7 percent of Niagara Wheatfield students are Native American, according to state figures.
The process started a year ago, when 11th-grade English teacher Gina Merlo, who said she is of Italian descent, met with Carter. The principal said, “She came to me and said, ‘Why do we celebrate this holiday?’ I said, ‘Give me a reason why we shouldn’t.’ ”
Merlo, who has taught at Niagara Wheatfield for more than 20 years, said Tuesday she didn’t think the district should honor “this massive creator of genocide.”
The question was turned over to the Native American Club, and to students taking social studies teacher Vince Schaffert’s courses in Native American Studies and Contemporary Indigenous Issues.
“Part of the luster of this project is kids working together,” Carter said. The student council unanimously approved dropping Columbus Day before the school board did the same.
The students’ research turned up the work of a Spanish priest who accompanied Columbus on one of his four voyages to the Caribbean. Father Bartolome de las Casas wrote that he saw Columbus’ crewmen burning Indians alive, hanging them in groups of 13, smashing babies’ heads against rocks and betting on whether they could split an Indian in two with one blow. The Taino nation in the Caribbean was exterminated, Hamby told the board.
“Everybody who’s come up to me has been really happy that it’s been changed,” Hamby said. “It was just genocide. … It’s no longer being taught that he was a hero.”
Carter said he’s heard no criticism since the board vote Sept. 21.