Changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day at Niagara Wheatfield started as a Native American Studies class project last year, not a campaign.
But high school students from Niagara Wheatfield influenced their School Board to change the name this fall, and now board members and administrators from other districts are taking notice:
- Williamsville School Board members are considering changing the name of the holiday on the district calendar to Indigenous Peoples Day, although Peter LoJacono, president of the Italian American Societies of Western New York, objected to the proposal at the board's Nov. 15 meeting.
- Lewiston-Porter's student council and superintendent went to Niagara Wheatfield this week to see the student presentation.
- Teachers and staff from Lake Shore and Silver Creek said there is talk in their school districts about the change.
The Niagara Wheatfield students' 26-slide Power Point presents five reasons why the name should be changed, offering some graphic details.
Reason No. 1: "Killings, Atrocities, Genocide, Slavery Kidnapping & Extinction."
The presentation quotes a Spanish priest who accompanied Christopher Columbus, and described vicious killings of men, women and children.
Students also note that some Tainos, the Native people, in "absolute despair and hopelessness," killed themselves after taking their children's lives to escape the misery and horror. The 2 million Taino's in the Caribbean at the beginning of the 15th Century had dwindled in 14 years to about 4,000 through genocide, according to the students' research.
Reason No. 2: "Columbus didn't 'discover' America."
"You can't 'discover' land that millions of people already know about and have been living on for thousands of years," said Quinna Hamby, vice president of the Native American Club that took the presentation to the Student Council.
Retired Tuscarora School culture teacher Joanne Weinholtz said some elementary teachers can be at a loss on how to teach this history.
"They’re used to teaching the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and now you’re calling it Indigenous Day? Now what do I teach?" she said.
Reason No. 3: "Columbus wasn't even the first European to make it to the Western Hemisphere. The Vikings were!"
The students' teacher, VinceSchiffert, called the project a "real educational process," authentic education with real social action. After an Italian-American English teacher asked the principal last year why Columbus Day is celebrated, he took it to Schiffert and his Native American Studies Class, and the Native American Club. They researched the issue last year, produced the presentation and took it to the Student Council.
"They learned something and put it into actual use to change society," Schiffert said.
"I found out how passionate I was about all these things and about who I am as an indigenous person," Hamby said. "You could see the growth just in one year, more kids becoming proud to be native."
Students and teachers say the success came because native and non-native students joined together. The Native American Club brought the presentation to the Student Council.
Reason No. 4: "Columbus Day holiday created without the full history."
"Because this information was so shocking, we hadn’t hardly known it before, we unanimously voted , the entire Student Council and its officers, voted to support them," said Jamie Haggerty, president of the Student Council.
But it wasn't shocking to Native American students. They learned about the history of indigenous people at the Tuscarora School, where they attend through sixth grade, before going to Edward Town Middle School.
"I really believe in that little pebble in the ocean and that little pebble gives off waves, and right now, we’re seeing significant waves happening," said Weinholtz, who taught culture at the Tuscarora School for 25 years. "It took many many years to reach this point."
Reason No. 5: "There's a growing national movement to change the Columbus Day holiday name."
Four states and a number of communities across the nation have changed the name, including Newstead, Akron and Lewiston.
Niagara Wheatfield students have given their presentation to the Student Council and superintendent of Lewiston-Porter Central School District and the Native American Regional Forum, consisting of area school districts with a Native American population.
Weinholtz and Schiffert have gone to elementary schools in the district to help teachers. They also realize changing how a community perceives the holiday can be volatile.
"We only mean to be respectful," Weinholtz said. "New York State and the Common Core talk about a multi-culture perspective, and here is the reality of multi-culture perspective."