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ROCKAWAY TWP., NJ– Tensions on the school board in Rockaway Township localizes a national issue: whether or not to honor Christopher Columbus.  

In the case of Rockaway Township schools, the board had changed the name of the October holiday that commemorates the Italian explorer to “Indigenous People’s Day.”  That led to complaints by some residents of the school district, who contacted Italian American advocacy groups, who in turn lobbied to have the issue put to a vote before the school board on Wednesday.

Andre DiMino, who represents the Italian American One Voice Coalition, described the school board situation in an interview.

“Three of the board members were hoodwinked when they voted on the change of the calendar earlier in the year, because they weren’t told they were changing Columbus Day,” he said on Thursday. 

“Last night,” DiMino continued, “they put a motion forward to restore Columbus Day to the calendar, but three other board members voted against that.  So unfortunately, that was a very bad thing that occurred last night.” 

The board has seven voting members, but one was absent at the Wednesday night meeting.  The 3 – 3 tie keeps the Indigenous People’s Day name in place, for now.

Eileen DeFreece, an elder in the Ramapough Lenape Nation of indigenous people and a professor at Essex County College, endorsed the situation.  She said that it moves beyond oppression of Native Americans which Columbus carried out. 

“It’s that old kind of thinking [that] colonialism, you know, is the key,” she said, “when colonialism, we know now, has just devastated different peoples all over the world.”

The school board is set to have its next meeting on Oct. 27 — more than two weeks after the holiday.  The board is expected to be in full attendance, and people from both sides of the issue are expected to lobby for their preferred name.

There was a similar situation earlier this year in Randolph, New Jersey, a few miles away.  In that case, the school board ultimately decided to restore the Columbus Day name, after spirited protests at school board meetings by residents and advocates for the Columbus Day appellation.