At their recent regular meeting on Wednesday, November 16, the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education came to a consensus to put a formal resolution on the agenda for the next meeting on Wednesday, December 7 announcing their intention to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Along with the change of name — which will, of course, apply to the school district and not to the state and federal government’s understanding of the holiday — will come a change of curriculum to reflect inclusion of the original inhabitants of this region in the story of America’s founding. One of the district’s schools (Lenape Elementary) is even named after Native American people, it was pointed out. The contributions of Italian culture to America’s story, currently at the heart of Columbus Day celebrations, will continue to be acknowledged.
The matter came up for review after board member Sophia Skiles read a prepared statement she’d written before the meeting. She said that changing the focus of the holiday was important because “how America was discovered is our origin story. It introduces and codifies who is considered American and who is not. It is often a child’s first lesson about encounters between people of different races and cultures. We owe it to the children of this district to faithfully and bravely examine the version of history we’ve chosen to tell.”
School districts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have already adopted this change and Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii do not observe Columbus Day at all, Skiles said, adding that South Dakota officially celebrates Native American Day, and New York State districts that have already recognized the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day include those in Rochester, Plattsburgh and Niagara Wheatfield.
“There exists a vast wealth of educational resources to re-think Columbus Day that critically engages our shared past and guides even the youngest learners to engage appropriate understanding of fairness, inclusion, history and national identity. Words, names matter. They shape our understanding and our lived experiences and our sense of inclusion in the stories we tell about ourselves and pass on to our children.”
Board members agreed unanimously with the statement Skiles read. Each said that they wish to make the change in the name of the holiday and see curriculum developed to support that. The only point of contention was the timeframe for doing so.
Superintendent Maria Rice said that while she supported the board’s decision, they should take into consideration that changing the curriculum will add additional work for already overburdened administrators and educators in the district. “What will take the most effort, time and diligence is looking at race and institutional racism, as we’ve started to do. That’s a tremendous amount of work, and change takes time.”
Board member Steve Greenfield said he supported changing the name of the holiday first with the curriculum to be developed afterward. “That can come over time. And if somebody were to wonder if there’s a right time to do this,” he added, “surely this is it.”
It’s “a bigger conversation,” Rice noted. “This concept, what you want to do, is huge. It’s different, and it’s new, and it’s controversial. And you need to involve the voices of the community, and the voices of the educational community.”
With the current issues the district is working on – namely the ongoing discussions about changing the school start times and establishing the perimeters of what makes a successful student – Rice said it might be prudent to wait until those matters are fully resolved.
Let the community be a part of the change, she advised, and “let us move toward that. This is too important to just throw something down and say we did it. We’re not there yet. There’s still so much work to do.”