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Middle School Students Describe Indigenous People’s Day Effort To College Audience

Stafford Middle School teachers Brenda Bieber (left) and Debbie Favro help students with Indigenous People's Day presentation
WAMC/Pat Bradley
Stafford Middle School teachers Brenda Bieber (left) and Debbie Favro help students with Indigenous People's Day presentation

Five Stafford Middle school students and their teachers were on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus on Thursday to talk about their successful effort last year to get the city school board to change Columbus Day on school calendars to Indigenous People’s Day.
Last winter the Plattsburgh City School Board voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day on district calendars.  It was prompted by middle school students who had studied firsthand accounts of Columbus’ history in the New World.

SUNY Plattsburgh’s Gender and Women’s Studies Chair Dr. Susan Mody says they are interested in how change is made and the Stafford Middle School students’ efforts are a prime, and local, illustration.   “The way that they have done it, the way that they have learned to work, to work together to make change, the obstacles that they encounter, all of that is something that will connect very directly I think for our students.”
Sixth grade social studies teacher Debbie Favro explained that the project to change Columbus Day began last October.   “My objective was to have them learn about Christopher Columbus through reading a primary source. So they're reading journals of Columbus. My second objective was to get them to look at history with a critical eye.”  
Five students who were a part of the project came to the college on Thursday to talk about their efforts.  School officials asked that their last names not be used since they are minors, but all received permission from their parents to talk about their work.   

As the students researched, they found the historical record deviated from conventional wisdom. They discovered that the explorer never landed in America, but rather the West Indies.  He enslaved the natives and was so cruel and tyrannical that Spanish officials arrested him and stripped him of his titles of viceroy and governor.  Kristy was shocked.   “I had always learned like how Columbus got there and like how he discovered America and then like traded with the Native Americans.  But I hadn’t really learned really anything cruel that he'd done or much that he had done in general.  But I was shocked and amazed at what he had done and I wanted to change it.”

The students approached the school board asking that Columbus Day be changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But convincing them wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. Students Kristy and Nate agree that was the hardest part of their project.   “They said no, maybe so many times and we had to present new things and do something new every single time we had to go back.”
Nate: “I agree with Christy I think that the hardest part was going to the board. You know we have all these facts. We're so ready for this and they just you can come back another two weeks, no in another two weeks, no in another two weeks. And this was a perfect example that you know not everything you know is what you actually know.”

At one point the school board asked the students to get feedback from Native Americans.  So they not only wrote to tribes across the nation, they convinced Mohawk leaders in the region to join them in their presentations.
Kristy:  “We have now had the full support of the people that we are trying to change it for.”
Nate:  “It was causing a lot of controversy whether or not we should do it and whether we shouldn't. And we were never just trying to do it for ourselves, we're trying to do it for the indigenous peoples themselves. So when we got their support it was kind of like we have to do it now we can't just let it be. We've asked them. They're excited about it. They want the change now themselves. So to be able to represent them is just..it's awesome.”

Destani says all the research and seeing the change this year has inspired her.   “When you do something this great I mean it makes you want to do more things that can make the world better and make a better change for other people besides just you. And you’re not being self centered at all so it kind of makes you feel good inside.”

The Plattsburgh City School District’s calendars have changed and the holiday is now designated  Indigenous People’s Day.

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