Changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day would be an affront to Italian Americans, the head of the Italian American Societies of Western New York told the Williamsville School Board Tuesday night.
But supporters of the change said it is not anti-Italian, but a matter of recognizing Native Americans and setting the record straight.
Celebrating Columbus Day in October is about celebrating his journey, bravery and tenacity as a navigator, said Peter LoJacono, president of the Italian American Societies of Western New York, who also lives in the district.
"We do not sanctify Columbus," he said, but he added, "We consider it an affront to Italian Americans and our culture to attack a day we feel so special."
Pete Hill, of the Native American Community Services of Erie & Niagara Counties, congratulated the board for taking up the issue.
Board members seemed in favor of getting more input from him and Italian Americans.
"It is a profound issue," Hill said, one that offers the opportunity to learn about different cultures.
School Board President Toni Vazquez made the suggestion last month that the district change Christopher Columbus Day on its calendar to Indigenous Peoples Day. She said she had seen a presentation put together by students in the Niagara Wheatfield School District, which this year changed the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday in 1937, and it became an official Monday federal holiday in 1971.
While LoJacono was the only one speaking in favor of keeping the day to recognize the contributions of Italian Americans, it was clear there were many in the audience who supported his remarks.
Former Newstead Town Councilman Justin Rooney, who proposed a similar proposal that was approved in his town last year, said he understood the position of School Board members.
"Never was this an anti-Italian or anti- any group," he said, adding it was done to acknowledge the "tremendous achievement" of Native people.
Several students spoke in favor of the change, including John Kraus, a senior at East High School, who said originally he had not been in favor of changing the name.
"I believe it would be in the best interests of not only the students but also the community to change the name," he said. "I'd like the board to really take into account the history when they make their decision."
Board members had mixed feelings on changing the name, and said they had gotten mixed feedback from Parent-Teacher-Student Associations.
"If it were up to me I would change it in a second. It's very upsetting and its very difficult to look at history and see the truth," Board Member Teresa Anne Leatherbarrow said. "My struggle is, is it up to me, as one of nine?"
Other board members also wondered if a school district was the proper venue for making the change. Board Member Shawn Lemay said the community should weigh in, or push it up to the federal government.
The superintendent and board president will be discussing the issue with high school students next month.
"We have the benefit of not having to rush," said Superintendent Scott Martzloff.