New Paltz School Board intends to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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.”

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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.”

There are 11 comments

  1. John Calvin

    Here’s an idea.
    Why doesn’t the school board concentrate it’s efforts on the education of the students rather than being a self serving platform to promote ideology?
    While you are at it, let us also end the naming our teams and groups “Huguenots”. Huguenots were French Protestants. Why would we want to call our children French Protestants?

  2. sandra

    I am a former resident of New Paltz.. It is a wonderful community filled with caring citizens. I remember when they fought Wal Mart from coming in as they were afraid the store would take away business from the small store owners. I am very happy to see them considering this idea and I applaud them. I miss my wonderful community.

  3. glenn eckert

    This is nonsense. The idea that a school board
    would alter curriculum to fit their particular world view is offensive. What are their qualifications to drive curricular changes? The answer is little to none. This reminds of when creationists in Kansas wanted to eliminate the teaching of evolution because of their particular religious beliefs.

  4. Joseph LaFiandra

    As an Italian-American, I don’t like this. It smells of political correctness and revisionist history. One cannot judge our founding fathers, who owned slaves, and explorers like Columbus by modern standards. Our descendants may consider us to be primitive savages for consuming meat and burning fossil fuels. Does the New Paltz School Board intend to replace Independence Day with Colonial Terrorist Day?

  5. George Persico

    Both the Federal government and NY State government recognize Columbus Day as a holiday. These determinations are neither recent nor trivial.

    If you want to make a significant impact on the understanding of the story of the role played by Indigenous peoples reflecting inclusion of the original inhabitants of this region I would strongly suggest changing the name of the Lenape Elementary School to Indigenous Peoples’ School to honor ALL the Indigenous Peoples in the story of America’s founding and not just the Lenape. District children would be reminded EVERY DAY of the contribution of the Indigenous Peoples’ to our community, state and nation.

    I fail to see involvement of Indigenous Peoples “in how America was discovered” in our origin story. Board member Skiles seems to believe that it is up to the district to decide what “version of history we’ve chosen to tell.”

    I would submit that it is larger than any School district in NY State or elsewhere to rewrite history. The voyages of Columbus are a historical fact linked with the early history of our nation and our hemisphere. To deny that is disingenuous at best. Even the name America (and Americans) is the result of another explorer, Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages.

    By renaming the Lenape School a unique opportunity to honor all Indigenous Peoples is presented. The board should study the mechanism needed to do so while leaving the existing Columbus Day commemoration intact as another facet in our history.

  6. Winona Whiner

    Let us also rename the Elting Memorial Library the Indigenous People’s library. The land it occupies and all the properties that Mr. Elting documented during his career were obviously stolen from the indigenous people. Why would we honor this white man for documenting the properties that were stolen from the original inhabitants.

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