Elementary students end Columbus Day at Potsdam Central
Saturday, November 30, 2019 - 8:34 am

From left are, in front, Charlotte Fiske, Cambria Britton, Kwynn Russell, Anya Bansal, and Mazdyn Comins; middle row ,Zach LaMora, Miles White, Gray Galluzzo, Evangeline Rygel, and Kellen Durham; back row, Timothy White, Megan Sullivan-Catlin, and Xavier Clookey. Photo submitted by Amy Stevenson.

BY MATT LINDSEY

North Country This Week

POTSDAM – A baker’s dozen third and fourth grade students are responsible for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Potsdam Central.

Beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, Indigenous Peoples’ Day will appear on the district calendar instead of Columbus Day.

PCS elementary library assistant Amy Murphy read students the book “Encounter” by Jane Yolen, which tells the story of Christopher Columbus landing on the island of San Salvador in 1492 and discovering the Taino Indians. The book is told from a young Taino boy's point of view and how the child tries to warn his people against welcoming the strangers, who seem more interested in gold than friendship.

After reading the book, third-grade student Cambria Britton approached Murphy about a petition to make the change.

Britton said, “I went up to Mrs. Murphy and said ‘can we do this thing people sign and it goes to the government to change it’ and she (Mrs. Murphy) said ‘ do you mean a petition?’”

So, the students created a petition that was signed by hundreds of other students in the district in support of changing the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Many classrooms all voted whether or not to change the name and every class except Mrs. Emily McCabe’s class voted to change it. Students all agreed differing opinions are good, but jokingly wanted to know, “What’s up with Mrs. McCabe’s class?”

Many of the students discussed changing the holiday with their families. Megan Sullivan-Catlin and her father, a history teacher in another local district, discussed the change at home. Her father opposed the change, and Megan stuck to her beliefs to make the change.

The students spoke to other classes while garnering signatures for their petition. After getting nearly 40 pages of signatures, they made a presentation to the school board in an effort to make the change.

Following their presentation, PCS Superintendent Joann Chambers addressed the students and told them that situations like this can take time and the board would likely take action at its next meeting.

As students were walking out, a member of the school board spoke up and made a motion to vote that night.

The board unanimously approved the resolution, and then “the president took a huge, humongous hammer and smashed it down,” said Britton, which caused her peers to laugh out loud.

The students were proud of their efforts.

“We were brave to go stand up in front of them,” said third grade student Mazdyn Comins, who added that her dad was “proud of me.” Comins said she is half Mohawk and knows some Mohawk words. “I have a Mohawk name, but my sister doesn't,” she said with a grin.

Fourth grader Kellan Durham said the group showed “teamwork” and “put in a lot of time” and “accomplished a goal.”

The school board offered compliments as well.

“The man (a school board member) said we had leadership and bravery,” said Miles White, a third grade student.

“I felt happy after the change,” Xavier Clookey said.

“The Mission of the Potsdam Central School District is to ‘Inspire, prepare, and empower students to lead fulfilled lives as compassionate, productive and engaged citizens.’ When our elementary students learned about Columbus's landing and the negative impact on the Native Americans, they were inspired to do something,” said Chambers. “In creating a petition, educating their peers and then presenting their proposal to the Board of Education, they demonstrated engaged citizenship. I am very proud of these young people for wanting to make a difference.”

Elementary librarian Amy Murphy, along with Adrienne White, library assistant; and Amy Stevenson, English as a new language teacher, have been teaching children about all holidays.

The goal is to make students more aware of other cultures and customs and allow students of other customs or nationalities to experience their holidays and traditions in a school setting with their peers.

“We want students to be exposed to, learn about, and celebrate our diverse student population here in LAE, as well as in our community and the world at large,” Stevenson said. “To me, to truly celebrate diversity means to respect and embrace our differences, while also finding the many commonalities we all share.”

Students wondered why they have been learning the wrong history.

“When we learned about Columbus in first grade we learned he was good,” said Zach LaMora, a third grader.

The indigenous population was subjected to slavery, exploitation and forced labor in gold and silver mines on an enormous scale.

“Why would Columbus do this … he was greedy when he should have been happy the people were nice enough to let him stay on their island,” said Kwynn Russell.

“They were there for thousands of years and we should have a holiday to celebrate and learn about them,” said Evangeline Rygel.

“Columbus was a bad person who kidnapped people and made them slaves,” said Anya Bansal, a fourth grade student. “He was greedy for gold,” added Gray Galluzzo.

The students said that now that they have heard the real story, they hope students in the future get taught the real history.

Charlotte Fiske of Mary Russell’s third grade class and her peers were hopeful the change would catch on in other schools, states and eventually the United States of America.

Timothy White, a fourth grader, called the group the “holiday changers.”

The students agreed that we should not change Christmas. “It’s Santa’s birthday,” Britton said.