Those inside the Rochester, N.Y., City Hall let out a roaring round of applause after nine council members unanimously approved a resolution to end its celebration of Columbus Day and replace it with a commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day each October.
“We look forward to seeing this become a moment of pride in our city,” Rochester City Council President Miguel A. Meléndez Jr. said on Tuesday evening. “And we stand with you, and I want to say today that we see you.”
Indigenous and Italian community members, including faith activists, rejoiced upon the legislation’s passage, touting it as an initial step on the path of healing from centuries of historical wrongs that locally accosted the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the original inhabitants of New York.
The measure that will go into effect on the second Monday in October didn’t simply come together overnight. Instead, an urban community deeply rooted in the pursuit of social justice work spent four years striving to attain it.
Kathy Castania, who described herself as a “proud, 100-percent Sicilian woman,” grew up in Rochester and the greater Monroe County, a region nearly toppling three-quarter of a million residents and a densely populated diaspora of almost 124,000 Italian Americans among them, according to 2020 U.S. Census ancestry data estimates.
“A bit of my story and my journey of realizing that my love of my culture, my love of our heritage, and wanting to share that meant that we had to liberate ourselves from Columbus,” Castania told Sojourners. “Not only liberating Indigenous peoples of Columbus but liberating us.”
The Rochester resident has taken nine trips to Italy, and each journey only solidified her commitment to ending her city’s celebration of the infamous Italian explorer.
“I see what our [Italian] values are,” Castania said. “Our values are hospitality. Our values are compassion. Our values are love. I don’t see that in Columbus.”
In April 2018, Castania co-founded the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Planning Committee, a local and independent grassroots initiative with volunteer members stretched throughout Rochester, Monroe County and its neighboring Native communities.
Though the committee dropped “planning” from its title, its mission has remained the same: convince the Rochester City Council to pass a resolution permanently changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Castania co-chairs the committee with Ronalyn “Ronnie” Pollack, an enrolled member of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, who celebrated their long-awaited victory on the front steps of city hall.
“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t do what I can, living in today’s modern day and age to stand for our rights [and] doing the work that was necessary and needed to get this resolution passed,” Pollack told Sojourners.
Throughout the process, Pollack said she sought to center Indigenous perspectives while also highlighting the shortcomings of the Catholic Church among her non-Native peers. It’s a brutal history lesson she learned firsthand through her grandmother, Helen Froman Sault of the Six Nations of the Grand River, a residential school survivor — or “thriver” as Pollack calls her.
Sault was forced to attend the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Ontario, Canada, even escaping a few times during her traumatic youth. It was her painfully personal story of enduring passion and spirit that inspires Pollack to seek repair and redress.
Former Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren aired a proclamation acknowledging Columbus and Indigenous Peoples’ Day as equally recognized city holidays on October 8, 2018, but Castania strongly believed that Rochester could claim an Italian American identity devoid of Columbus.
Learning from others
In the months that followed, Castania reached out to fellow Italian Americans in Central New York to explore strategies for eliminating Columbus Day altogether. She connected with Cindy Squallice, a 15-year activist with the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation and founding member of the Women of Italian and Syracuse Heritage, as well as Jack Manno, a founding member of the Skänoñh Great Law of Peace Center, who also sits on the Onondaga Nation Steering Committee.
In downtown Syracuse, Squallice and Manno had collaborated on working to rename Columbus Circle and remove its granite fountain monument, which is topped with a bronze statue of the iconic explorer.
Squallice and Manno told Castania about working with Interfaith Works of Central New York, a Syracuse-based organization focused on building bridges for racial and religious equity. Interfaith Works had been tasked by Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh’s office to create programming through tools of interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue to address the Columbus Circle controversy in the summer of 2020.
Thus, the Columbus Circle Action Committee was born, and Andrea Jacobs, 38, a dialogue coordinator and facilitator at the El-Hindi Center for Dialogue and Action at Interfaith Works, was deeply involved with developing “pathways forward together” for their divided local community.
Interfaith Works’ approach to building community buy-in ultimately influenced Syracuse to rename Columbus Circle to Heritage Park and even remove the statue, though an Onondaga County judge later ruled the mayor’s office lacked the authority to do so.
Despite the shortcomings in Syracuse, Castania and the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee loosely adapted Interfaith Works’ model for Rochester. She said a series of “phenomenal conversations” guided their community amid a global pandemic disrupting in-person gatherings.
Within the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee, an Italian Heritage subcommittee, mainly composed of Italian Americans from within the city, primarily coordinated conversation circles. Kit Miller, director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, a Rochester-based nonprofit that prioritizes racial healing work and restorative approaches to conflict resolution, was designated as the neutral facilitator for their series.
The city government financed costs associated with the conversation circles, which began with a pre-session in August 2020. The group held three more meetings between January and March 2021, all virtual, to “develop common ground based on a broader understanding of Italian Americans, our histories and how we choose to celebrate our culture in Rochester.”
They invited Italian Americans from local civic and faith groups to share their lived experiences, which later aided in drafting the resolution.
Barbara Staropoli, a Sicilian-descendant and nun at the Sisters of St. Joseph for six decades, joined the Italian Heritage subcommittee shortly after meeting Castania.
“My faith, my relationship to Jesus, plays out in how I tried to deal with some of these issues,” Staropoli told Sojourners. “It’s best to step back and think and pray and then come out with action.”
She still struggles with the Catholic Church’s legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal bull issued to support Spanish colonizers, and the church’s role in the era of residential school systems, which were designed to “force those children to lose their culture.”
“Who’s running the school but sisters — nuns? This does me in; I mean, that we would be connected with that kind of destruction, cultural destruction,” Staropoli added.
In early April, Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s misconduct and abuses inflicted upon Indigenous children inside Canada's residential schools.
Staropoli said she recommitted herself to the Catholic social teaching in an effort to see Indigenous Peoples’ Day acknowledged through her activism on the subcommittee.
“It is very challenging to be a white person right now, aware of all the discrimination around,” Staropoli said. “But I’m very fortunate to be banded with people who, like myself, will work to challenge and change that.”
Patricia “Trish” Corcoran, an enrolled member of the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Nation, has been a member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee since 2019. Motivated by her fierce desire to speak her mind, Corcoran joined their efforts to reveal traditional knowledge stemming from her Seneca culture.
As a kindergarten teacher at the Harley School in Rochester, she often skims history textbooks, watches documentaries, and peruses school calendars and coloring books.
Corcoran discovered that dominating narratives of Columbus’ infamous voyage in 1492 were perpetuated in literature, especially targeting children.
“If you keep putting his name on the calendar, then people keep thinking he’s an important person to be celebrated,” Corcoran told Sojourners.
It’s still difficult to step beyond the shadow of Columbus, both for Italian Americans and Indigenous peoples, Corcoran said, adding that passing the resolution is “a terrific start” to turn the page and write a new chapter in Rochester.
Incorporating input from Italian Americans was a crucial step in ending Columbus Day celebrations, Rochester City Council Vice President Mary Lupien told Sojourners.
“This wasn’t shoved down the community’s throat,” Lupien said. “There is a lot of effort into including Italian Americans, coming to awareness about the true history and centering all of it through our Native American members of the committee.”
As the resolution’s point-person in city government, Lupien sat on the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee.
“I think it’s an important — more than symbolic — step in making sure that we’re not erasing anyone,” Lupien added. “We’re honoring those who came before us and trying to correct the wrongs, which was celebrating this man who caused so much harm.”
Honoring Italian Americans without Columbus
While Columbus will no longer be honored in Rochester, joining dozens of cities nationwide, the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee isn’t forgetting or overlooking the contributions of their local Italian Americans either. They’re even exploring the possibility of establishing an Italian Heritage Day, which would occur in October.
Pollack said there is excitement over the idea of Italian American and Indigenous heritage holidays existing in tandem. But ultimately, she said the sustained effort to oust Columbus as a lionized figure was “long overdue.” And Castania agreed.
“None of us grew up with any allegiance to Columbus. It was a day of school. None of us had our parents or anybody saying this is a really important day,” Castania said. “There was no longer a parade. None of us felt like we did anything about our Italian heritage on that day.”