ALBANY — A proposal to yank the Columbus Day state holiday from the calendar and recast it as “Indigenous People’s Day” is gaining traction at the statehouse after getting Democratic sponsors in both the Assembly and Senate.
“Indigenous People’s Day reimagines Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous people in the Americas, to organize against current injustices and to celebrate indigenous resistance,” argues legislation authored by Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, and Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes, D-Brooklyn.
The measure is already drawing frowns from Italian-American lawmakers..
Christopher Columbus, an explorer who stumbled into the Americas in 1492 while trying to find a new route to India and China, is feted by many Italians for opening up transatlantic journeys.
Contacted by CNHI, Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said Columbus Day should be left intact. He suggested there could be consideration for a separate day to honor indigenous people.
“Let’s not forget we can’t judge from today’s standards,” Morinello said. “We must consider the time in history. Additionally, we Italians celebrate the bravery of sailing to the unknown and the exploration spirit to determine if the world was flat or round.”
At least 12 states and more than 130 cities have ditched Columbus Day in recent years amid culture wars forcing a re-examination of the deeds of historical figures and their ties to colonialism or slavery.
A divided Plattsburgh school board voted in February 2016 to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, a decision that gained the full support of the St. Regis Mohawk Nation. The proposal originated from Stafford Middle School sixth grade Voyager Team students.
Brendan White, a spokesman for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in northern New York, said the St. Regis leadership would approve of the proposal to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
White recalled St. Regis Mohawk Chief Ronald LaFrance Jr. traveled to Plattsburgh to support the school board members who cast the deciding votes in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Columbus Day remains a federal holiday. But last year President Joe Biden issued a proclamation commemorating the day as Indigenous Peoples Day to recognize “the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples” and remind the federal government of its treaty obligations to tribal nations.
New York has eight federally recognized Indian tribes.
State Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Otsego County, said a debate over what to call Columbus Day is trivial compared to the anxiety faced by elderly New Yorkers worried about the cost of heating their homes this winter.
He called the legislation put forward by Ramos and Mitaynes “ridiculous.”
“This doesn’t even make my list of top 100 issues,” Oberacker added.
A spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation, operator of the Turning Stone Casino near Rome, N.Y. said the legislation will be reviewed by tribal officials.
The Columbus Day Parade in Manhattan, the largest celebration of Italian American heritage in the nation, is slated to be held October 10. It is a paid holiday for state government employees.
While many businesses and the Wall Street stock market remain open on Columbus Day, most banks are closed.
The New York legislation bluntly states: “Christopher Columbus did not discover America.”
The sponsors contend that the bill is needed to recognize the contributions of indigenous people to “our history, culture and economic life.”
Ted Shuart, the Schoharie County historian, said the push to cast aside a day named for Columbus smacks of the kind of “political correctness” that has prompted some public schools to stop calling sports teams names referring to Native Americans.
“I never saw that as insulting to Indians, unless it’s ‘Redskins” or something like that,” Shuart said. “It’s more of an honor than a slap in the face.”
Shuart said he would favor a separate day honoring indigenous people. “Don’t brand Columbus a war criminal,” he said. “Just leave the holidays alone.”
At least for the short term, Columbus Day appears to be safe for this year.
Lawmakers are not scheduled to return to the state Capitol until January.