Amherst elementary students lead charge for Indigenous Peoples’ Day

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 06-19-2023 4:09 PM

AMHERST — Seven years ago, middle school students helped usher in change to make Amherst the first community in the state to formally ditch Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

This year, a group of Fort River Elementary School fifth grade students in the same district are leading an even greater charge: making Indigenous Peoples’ Day a state holiday. Students recently announced their crusade, c support of House Bill 2989 and Senate Bill 1976, which if passed, would officially establish Indigenous Peoples Day and recommend that the history of genocide and discrimination against Indigenous peoples be taught in schools. The bills also seek to recognize and celebrate the thriving cultures and resilience of Indigenous peoples and their tribal nations.

Aaron Cheng, 11, explained that he and his classmates care about the issue and hope that state officials will support their campaign.

“I don’t think that we should celebrate a person who oversaw the killings of many Indigenous people. We should celebrate the people who lived in these lands for thousands of years,” Cheng said.

The student-led campaign was part of a unit in Tim Austin’s language arts class that included a civic literacy and organizing project that he teaches each spring. The project kicked off with students writing about the change that they’d like to see in the world, Austin said.

From there, they build on their background knowledge on a number of issues and through a collaborative process, hone in on one issue and plan a campaign around that issue.

“One student was really interested in impacting climate change and made the point that the return of Indigenous lands and climate change are sort of connected, so the class decided to try to tackle two things,” Austin said. “My hope is that they can take some of the skills they learn in this unit and apply it to other things they care about in the future.”

Austin also said the level of his students’ engagement was particularly high because all of the tasks they were involved in were especially “authentic.”

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In putting forth their support for the House and Senate bills, students wrote letters to state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst. Comerford is the lead sponsor on Senate Bill 1976 and Domb is a co-sponsor. Elo Schwabe, 11, said one of the reasons for the change was the need to honor Indigenous peoples.

More recently, the two state officials stopped by to meet with students to discuss how to move the bill through the legislative process. Students also showcased a banner-size petition that spells out Indigenous Peoples’ Day with signed hearts. Fifth-graders sought out signatures inside the school and at the Amherst Farmers Market.

“I have never seen that kind of petition from elementary school students. Ever. It’s so smart because you’re telling me exactly what you want — it’s beautiful,” Domb told students.

The class also led a Q&A with the state officials and provided further anecdotal reasoning for wanting the statewide change.

Serin Kim, a student who is originally from South Korea, likened the struggles inflicted on Indigenous peoples by colonial settlers to that of Japanese invasions of South Korea.

“They (the Japanese) invaded our land, killed many people, made them slaves — I feel like the Indigenous people would have felt for Columbus, since it’s the same thing. So, I feel like if there was a day in South Korea named ‘Japanese Invasion Celebration Day,’ it would make no sense,” Kim said. “It would be ridiculous. And I think that’s what Indigenous people must be thinking right now.”

And though the school year has come to an end, legislators spoke of ways students could remain involved over the summer, including virtually testifying at coming hearings and events.

Though the legislative process can be slower at times, the state officials reminded students the process can also move swiftly. In July 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who was killed in May 2020 by Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old white police officer, the state Legislature passed a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday, Comerford noted. The state holiday went into effect in 2021.

“The legislature moved very quickly, which is how we know it can move quickly when we want to or when you tell us to,” she said.

Comerford also noted that in addition to the bills to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day, there are also three other Indigenous-centered bills that have just been refiled in the Legislature, including one to prohibit the use of Native American mascots in public schools, one that aims to develop a school curriculum with tribal nations in the state to ensure cultural competency in Indigenous history, and the creation of an education commission for American Indian and Alaska Native residents in Massachusetts.

Following the presentation, both Comerford and Domb gushed to the Gazette the students and their presentation.

Comerford described the students as “powerful forces for positive change,” noting how proud she was to partner with the Fort River students.

“It’s just extraordinary how smart, cooperative, collaborative and articulate they are with what they want to see us do … I’m blown away,” said Domb. “I think we all need to develop these skills of being able to work together, assert what we think is the most important thing and then be able to sit back and let somebody else’s idea take priority, and then work together as a group to make it happen. That, alone, is a lesson.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>