The significance of Indigenous Peoples Day 

Last week, Mayor Lovely Warren issued a proclamation recognizing the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in addition to the traditional celebration of Columbus Day. Guest columnists Ronald Garrow and Kathy Castania offer their perspectives on the need for the proclamation and the opportunities it offers.

Garrow, an Akwesasne Mohawk, Bear Clan, is an indigenous-rights activist and educator. He is working to change curriculum in local districts and is cultural advisor to SURJ ROC (Showing Up for Racial Justice). He grew up in Rochester, and members of his extended family live on the Akwasasne reservation.

Castania is the co-chair of the Education Committee of SURJ ROC and is a lead facilitator with the Opening Doors Diversity Project. Kathy has been leading workshops on power and privilege for more than 25 years. She lived for a time in her grandfather’s village of Montedoro, Caltanisetta Region, Sicily. Both Garrow and Castania are members of the Indigenous Peoples Planning Committee.

Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal will return next week.

Ronald Garrow: 'This is a first step'

Indigenous Peoples Day is important to me, because growing up in Rochester and attending city schools, I was exposed to a colonized classroom.

I was taught that Columbus Day was declared a legal holiday to commemorate the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. We learned about his voyage and the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We learned about his plan to sail west in an attempt to find a new route to Asia, where spices and gold would be traded.

What we were not taught in class was that for Indigenous Peoples, the date 1492 signifies the beginning of a systematic attempt at genocide. The colonized classroom did not teach about the enslavement of the Native People. They did not teach us that Columbus and his crew raped and murdered the Native People of the land. They didn’t teach us that Columbus brought with him disease and the destruction of Native Peoples’ cultures.

As an Indigenous person, I was forced to celebrate a holiday that represented colonization and the enslavement of my people. Without questioning a thing, I made art projects, sang songs, and wrote reports about the contributions of Christopher Columbus.

Indigenous Peoples Day begins to recognize the atrocities committed by Columbus and his crew, and is the first step towards decolonizing the classroom and teaching a more honest and fair representation of this history.

Kathy Castania: 'This can liberate us all'

The City of Rochester's proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in addition to Columbus Day can be seen as a step toward liberation for us as Italian Americans.

I know for some of us it feels like a loss and brings up fear and anxiety about losing a symbol that at one time in our history we needed. As a resilient and intelligent people, however, we can support each other to deal with this sense of loss and adopt more empowering symbols.

This can be an opportunity to start important discussions about celebrating our rich and beautiful culture without it being connected to someone who brought death and destruction to Native People. We can together begin to reclaim a truer, more accurate history – one that our ancestors might embrace if they were alive.

In truth, Christopher Columbus was working for the same systems of power and colonization that for centuries were in Southern Italy and Sicily, where most of the Italian Americans in our community are descendent from. These systems were so oppressive that they eventually drove tens of thousands of our people to leave their homeland, discouraged by their continued mistreatment by the government and the monarchies, including Spain, much like they and Columbus used the Tainos and Arawak people he encountered.

They treated our ancestors virtually as slaves in the fields and sulfur mines. Our ancestors lived as feudal serfs, not even able to own land. In truth, our people were at the receiving end in Italy of what drove Columbus to do what he did here in the Americas: obsession with the desire to take gold to the king and queen of Spain at any human cost, including cutting off of hands, enslavement, and genocide.

Escaping this history in Italy and Sicily, our people came here with high hopes of finally being treated as human beings. Instead, they were targeted by eugenics and were considered a biological threat to the US racial order. They were lynched, demonized in the media, and segregated from other white workers.

In Rochester, as Jerre Mangione told in his book, "Mt. Allegro," Italians were not even allowed to rent apartments. No wonder that in 1937 the Knights of Columbus and other Italian American fraternal organizations were so quick to adopt Columbus and use that holiday as a platform for redefining our identity in line with “white” people in the US.

We now have an opportunity to move away from one narrative and instead learn multiple perspectives, creating a win-win and rejecting our part in the construction of whiteness.

Indigenous Peoples Day in Rochester is a call to all of us to start to reclaim our true history and find in ourselves the wisdom, power, and pride that came from strong and hospitable people who knew how to survive in the face of oppression.

Let’s see this change as a newfound freedom to pass on to our children and grandchildren – a way to really celebrate those who came before them, honoring their hard work, fights for justice, and resiliency, instead of a false hero.

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