PLATTSBURGH — Plattsburgh City School will replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day on district calendars.
Gathered in the gym of the Duken Building, a large crowd of students, parents and community members burst into applause and cheers when the School Board voted 5 to 2 in favor of the change at a meeting Thursday night.
Showing support for renaming the holiday were Board Vice President Tracy Rotz and members Steve Krieg, Amelia Goerlitz, Robert Hall and Dr. David Stone.
Board members Ron Marino and Fred Wachtmeister voted against the change.
Board President Leisa Boise and member Clayton Morris were absent from the meeting.
SUPPORT IN SURVEY
The renaming was proposed by Stafford Middle School's sixth-grade Voyager Team last fall, after the students in combined social-studies and English class, led by teachers Debbie Favro and Nancy Strack, learned about Christopher Columbus's greed and cruelty toward Hispaniola natives.
Since Krieg had requested the sixth-graders seek feedback from natives on the matter, the students sent a survey to indigenous communities across the country.
Before the vote, the Voyagers described for the board the overwhelming support for the name change they had received from Native Americans, including members of the St. Regis Mohawks, who recently visited the school and personally gave their consent.
Following the student presentation, Thomas Stacey, a Mohawk and grandfather to Stafford Middle School student Valerie Stacey-Patrie, addressed the board.
“I’m here to let you know that I’d like to see a change in Columbus (Day)," he said during the first public-comment portion of the meeting.
"Instead of Columbus, I’d like to see an aboriginal native day, but in order to put that together, we have to have a ceremony to let Columbus go and to not come back again because the more he stays on, the more the corruption he’s going to make.”
Valerie's mother, Emily Stacey, also spoke, noting her daughter, a member of the sixth-grade Explorer Team, was frustrated to not have been included in the Voyager project, especially given her Mohawk heritage.
“Not everybody’s accepting of other people … I think that that only intensifies the reason for change," Emily said.
"I hope that the Board of Education here in the Plattsburgh City School District heightens their awareness when it comes to change and that these children who put so much effort into their homework and took pride in what they found should be honored and not snickered at.”
Both speakers elicited applause from the audience.
Later in the session, Krieg made a motion to vote on the matter, commended the Voyagers for their hard work and pledging his support for erasing the name of Columbus from district calendars.
“I believe you’ll remember these teachers for the rest of your lives, and as a board member, I’m proud to have these teachers in the district," he told the students of Favro and Strack.
"And also, I want you to look around and see what you’ve done and just realize the power you have when you work together.”
Krieg then addressed Native American communities, his voice shaking with emotion.
“For all the promises we broke, for the Trail of Tears, for Sand Creek and the Wounded Knee, where we murdered your women and children, you deserve better," he said.
Wachtmeister, however, urged his fellow board members to vote against the name change.
Heads in the audience shook in disapproval as he read for more than 10 minutes from a prepared statement of opposition.
Referring to the students' proposal as an "ideological struggle," Wachtmeister asked, “Should the board expect from other grade levels a resolution condemning Israel for stealing Palestine from the Palestinians? How about proposals for reparations for slavery?”
Columbus's explorations led to "a truly global environment," he said, which resulted in "higher levels of material and intellectual attainment" for humanity.
“The indigenous were treated no differently than most other conquered people around the world," Wachtmeister continued.
Exploiting lower classes, "which the Indians became," he added, was a regular occurrence by upper classes.
"Why blame Columbus, who was clearly an integral part of the human condition?” Wachtmeister asked.
In addition, he said, “the rationale presented by the students is not compelling, as it was simplistic, not acknowledging the complexity of human history.”
Those who don't like the idea of the federal holiday should petition legislators for a change, Wachtmeister continued, and if the board is serious about the students' proposal, perhaps it should put it before voters during the district's May budget vote.
“If the voters of Plattsburgh support the motion, so be it," he said.
While Marino went on to praise the Voyagers' work, he also cited a massacre of settlers the day after one gathering as evidence of natives' own brutality.
“Because I don’t see much difference between what Columbus did and what the indigenous people did, I’m voting against this,” he said.
Speaking next, Stone stood up from his chair at the board table and addressed Thomas directly.
“Elder, thank you," he said. "I can tell you one thing that Columbus did that was valuable; he brought you into my life, and I’m grateful to Christopher Columbus for that.”
In addition, he continued, “I’m embarrassed by what some of my fellow board members have said, and I apologize to you for the insult.
"They don’t get it; they don’t know our suffering."
Stone then addressed Wachtmeister, saying, “of the list of extreme things that you suggested might happen as a result of this change — and they are extreme — there’s only one I would support and that’s reparations for my people.”
Vowing support for the name change, Stone also urged the students to continue to fight against injustice. Though, he noted, "fighting for social justice is a lonely, lonely, thankless job."
Stone's comments were met by applause from the audience, as were those made by Rotz just before the vote.
In all his years on the board, the vice president said, "the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make was on this vote, so I commend you for really testing me.”
The students didn't just complain about the matter, he noted, they took action.
He would vote in favor of the proposal, Rotz told the Voyagers, to show that if "you do go out there and put the work in and fight for something you believe, it’s not always going to go your way, but sometimes it does.”
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