Although most people have Christmas on the mind this week, a group of sixth grade students in Plattsburgh are looking forward to next October. As WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley reports, they’re asking the city school board to change the name of Columbus Day.
The Plattsburgh city school board has twice tabled a request by Stafford Middle School students to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day on student calendars and district paperwork next year.
The first postponement in November was to allow time for community feedback. At the December board meeting, the panel asked the students to get input from native peoples in the area.
Social Studies teacher Debbie Favro says her class began the project after learning the real history of Christopher Columbus. “We were trying to teach the children to look at history with a critical eye. We did a big unit way back at the end of September beginning of October on Columbus. I work in conjunction with my colleague Nancy Strack. And we presented the children with many primary sources, some of which were Columbus’ own journal. At the end of this project I would say 99 percent of them said he’s nothing like we thought he was. He wasn’t a hero. And Mrs. Strack had found a website where a city had changed the name to Indigenous People’s Day. And the students said why don’t we get it changed? And it truly came from these 11 year olds sitting in our class.”
The Plattsburgh City School Board is not unique in considering altering the October holiday. Cornell University American Indian Program Associate Director Mario Caro says colleges, cities and even states have changed the name of the holiday. “A lot of this usually starts at the grassroots level. Berkley was one of the early places where this happened. More recently places like Seattle, Olympia, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Portland, Lawrence, Kansas, Albuquerque. I mean the list is growing. The most recent news I heard was coming out of Alaska in which the state itself declared the date as Indigenous People’s Day.”
Caro adds he is amazed that sixth graders are taking up the issue. “I’m very glad to see that. I think it actually really highlights how it’s a no brainer. I mean it’s not a very complex, nuanced situation. If you’re not familiar with the history and you open up Columbus’ log from his first voyage you’re shocked that right from the get-go he is enslaving native folk. So it’s there in black and white. It’s in his hand that he committed these atrocities. One to realize is the renaming of Columbus Day is not a revision of history but it’s acknowledging the way history is.”
While the teachers and students at Stafford Middle School thought their effort would be a slam dunk when they first approached the school board, Favro says it’s now become an exceptional learning experience on multiple levels. “Because they’ve really learned the democratic process. It’s not easy when you’re trying to change what people think. We all learned that he was a great guy. But truth be known he wasn’t. He was going looking for gold and to get it he did horrible things to the natives. You know history was written by the winners. That’s what I tell the children so you need to look at it with a critical eye. The whole agenda really was to get the children to look at history smartly. And that’s what they’ve done and now they’re full steam ahead.”
The Plattsburgh City School Board, which meets once a month, will next discuss the students’ request at its February meeting.