Community News

Indigenous SU students, staff react to proposed bill replacing Columbus Day

Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2022

October 10, 2022 | By Dominic Chiappone |

Photo: Students and staff at SU feel that a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be a starting point for further work. Photo credit: Emily Steinberger, Senior Staff Photographer

Professor Scott Stevens, a citizen of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation and Syracuse University’s Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies, believes replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a “nice gesture.” But Stevens said the change feels mostly symbolic.

“It might heighten awareness of Indigenous issues at best, but it doesn’t compensate for the other problems,” he said.

This year, State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes proposed legislation that would have the holiday replace Columbus Day. Stevens, along with other students and staff at SU, feels the bill should be a starting point for further work.

Angela Edmond, a member of the Seneca Nation and a sophomore at SU majoring in psychology, said the bill could help bring together the state and its Indigenous communities. Several students who are part of SU’s Native Student Program expressed a similar sentiment to the D.O. Despite efforts to bridge the gap between both parties, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul announced in late September that she wouldn’t support renaming Columbus Day.

According to the bill’s memo, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day would provide an opportunity to celebrate the resistance of the Indigenous community and highlight the injustices committed against Indigenous people in the United States.

Only 10 states recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an official holiday and SU did not officially recognize the holiday until 2016. The bill is not currently up for a vote for this legislative session.

Edmond said she feels frustrated because of the lack of recognition for Indigenous people both at SU and in the state as a whole.

“At SU, I feel frustrated that we don’t have the day off because we are one of the most native populated schools in the country,” Edmond said. “It’s important to recognize that our people are still here. People, especially from out of state, think we just disappeared.”
Edmond volunteers for events organized by Syracuse University’s Native Student Program, saying that these opportunities give non-Indigenous communities the ability to become better educated and more appreciative of Indigenous culture on-campus. Edmond said the relationship between the University and the Native Student Program is strong, but SU members outside of that association is weak.

Stevens voiced a similar sentiment to Edmond, saying that the bill can help give New Yorkers a more balanced sense of American history. He explained that the new bill, while limited in systematic change, does advance the conversation on providing equity to Indigenous communities.

“In the United States, there’s been a long historiographic tradition of really excluding Native America,” Stevens said. “We’re kind of marooned in the past, and there’s no sense of contemporary Indigenous issues in the United States because we’re always treated as a kind of factor of a distant past.”

But the idea of switching from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been met with backlash in New York. Like Hochul, Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin announced that he will not support the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

While the future for the state bill recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day remains unknown, Searing said accountability and education are a necessary foundation for change.

“The more we can educate people about the realities of American history, the better off we are,” Searing said. “The most realistic, educated view makes you a better citizen and us a better nation.”