Beacon schools wrestle with recognizing Italians, Indigenous people
The Beacon school board will discuss and may decide on Monday (Sept. 18) whether to rename the Columbus Day holiday, which this year falls on Oct. 9, on the district calendar.
Board members on Aug. 28 opted not to vote on the issue with only six members of the nine-person board present. (One seat is vacant.) However, those who were present indicated they are leaning toward following the lead of New York City’s public schools, which since 2021 have called the second Monday in October “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day” — a nod to the explorer Christopher Columbus and the native people who predated him.
New York City initially renamed the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day but, after pushback, added the dual designation. The New Paltz and Onteora (Ulster County) and Nyack (Rockland County) districts have changed their calendars to recognize only Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
A Beacon district resident asked the board last fall to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but the district soon heard protests from community members who said the change would slight their Italian heritage. A six-person committee formed to consider the arguments was unable to reach consensus.
Superintendent Matt Landahl said during the Aug. 28 meeting that the committee met in March, April and June. “This was six people discussing things in a respectful way and trying to hear each other out,” Landahl said. “But we eventually came back to where we started,” with the group split evenly.
In the end, the committee members chose to each write statements to the school board explaining their opinions.
Columbus: What Really Happened
Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the “New World” between 1492 and 1504 but never set foot in what is now the U.S. The European who “discovered” North America was probably Viking explorer Leif Erikson, who during the 10th century landed in what is now Newfoundland and stayed for at least 10 years. (In 1964, Congress declared Oct. 9 as Leif Erikson Day.)
During Columbus’ first trip in 1492, his ships docked in what is now Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. He landed in the Bahamas first, which he thought was India. He believed Cuba was China.
Columbus Day was celebrated in the U.S. on the 300th anniversary of his first journey, on Oct. 12, 1792, and the 400th on Oct. 12, 1892. In 1971, it was declared a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday in October.
Some argue that Columbus wasn’t Italian, because the country did not exist before 1861. Instead, he identified as Genoese, from the independent republic of Genoa, which had its own language and colonies and close ties to Spain.
There’s no argument that Columbus was influential. “He opened up America to Europe, which was the expansionist power at the time,” Russell Freedom, the author of Who Was First? Discovering the Americas, told NPR. “He was the one who made it possible for them to conquer the Western Hemisphere — and to bring with them the diseases that apparently wiped out 90 percent of the population. He wasn’t the first, and neither were the Vikings — that is a very Eurocentric view. There were millions of people here already, and so their ancestors must have been the first.”
Board Member Kristan Flynn, who supports the New York City model, said at that meeting that she expects “everybody is going to lose a little bit” when the board votes on the issue. “We know we make a good decision as a board when everybody is a little unhappy,” she said. “That’s the sweet spot, when you’ve achieved something that works for a lot of people.”
However, Landahl noted that if the board changes the name of the October holiday — which would only affect the Beacon school district calendar — it would not be “an attempt to erase history or change our curriculum.”
The story of Columbus landing on Oct. 12, 1492, in the “New World” has evolved greatly, said Meredith Heuer, the school board president. “It was a very, very simple story” when she was in school, Heuer said. Today, students hear a “much more expanded version of what happened,” including the effect that the Europeans’ arrival had on Indigenous people.
“The way it is taught now, I don’t think someone would be like, ‘Let’s give this guy a holiday. This guy is a hero,’ ” said Heuer, who also supports New York City’s combined designation. The explorer’s impact on Indigenous people “was so devastating that I feel that needs recognition.”
“We have erased entire nations of people. That’s just a fact,” said Flynn, who called it “incredibly generous” to combine the name of the holiday, as New York City has.