51° Good Morning
51° Good Morning
Long IslandSuffolk

Students hold mock trial for Christopher Columbus' treatment of American Indians

Lou Gallo, Commission for Social Justice for the

Lou Gallo, Commission for Social Justice for the Sons of Italy, spoke to seventh grade social studies students at Southampton Intermediate School in Southampton on the importance of Columbus Day on Wednesday, March 4, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

Seventh-graders in Southampton who did a background check on Christopher Columbus are not impressed by the 15th century explorer, and they want his name dropped from the October holiday that honors him.

In October, a class in the Southampton Intermediate School spent three days putting Columbus through a mock trial, sorting through gritty details of American history some students don't learn until high school or college.

Teachers Kelly Anderson and Ken Sisco said the students relied on primary documents. Instead of reading textbooks, they pored over diaries and other documents on which history books are based.

The students came to the same conclusion as many historians: Columbus and his men oppressed and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of thousands of American Indians, and their exploration was limited to the Caribbean and South -- not North -- America.

"It was very hard to make me look innocent," said Aidan Wisniewski-Campo, 13, who played Columbus. "There were a lot of great things that he did accomplish, but there was a lot of bad things he did, too."

Aidan -- that is to say, Columbus -- was found guilty.

As a result of their findings, in January the students lobbied their district for the name change. They wrote to the school board and even offered alternatives, which included Italian-American Day, Heritage Day or Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Eight percent of students in the Southampton school district, which covers the Shinnecock Indian Nation's reservation, are American Indians -- the highest concentration on Long Island.

The name-changing effort follows city governments in Seattle and Minneapolis, which last year renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day.

School officials said last week through a spokeswoman that the district "does not have a proposal at this point to formally change the name" but "is proud of the students for their critical analysis of historical events."

The students' request has drawn opposition from the national Italian-American group the Sons of Italy, which sent a representative to the class on March 4 to argue on Columbus' behalf.

Lou Gallo, a former Longwood High School history teacher and state chairman of the Commission for Social Justice, the Sons of Italy's anti-bias arm, told students that Columbus opened the Americas to European exploration, even if he didn't discover what is now the United States.

Gallo acknowledged Columbus was "no prince" when it came to treatment of American Indians, but said, "You can't apply 21st century values to 15th century behavior."

He faced about 30 minutes of pointed questions from students.

"Isn't it true that Columbus let loose his dogs to attack the natives?" asked Nashota Williams, 12, who is Shinnecock.

"Yes," Gallo said. "Fifteenth century people did those things."

Wayne Moore, 13, fired off this question: "What if all the Native Americans got on boats and came to Italy and started killing all the Italians?" he asked Gallo. "Would Italy have a day after the Native Americans?"

Gallo told of the invasion of Italy centuries ago by the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Pressed by Moore, he acknowledged he "would probably agree with what the Native Americans are trying to do today."

Celebrating alternatives to Columbus Day


HAWAII: Discoverers' Day (established 1988)

b>SOUTH DAKOTA: Native Americans' Day (established 1990)

SEATTLE: Indigenous Peoples' Day (established 2014)

MINNEAPOLIS: Indigenous Peoples' Day (established 2014)

PORTLAND, OREGON PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Indigenous Peoples' Day (established 2014)


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News