How a town that’s 97% white came to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Getty/David Ryder

Within several months last year, the small, conservative, 97%-white town of Newstead in northwestern New York successfully fought to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It’s a story that offers an instructive lesson to the rest of America about tolerance.

It started in February 2015 when Justin Rooney, a former Newstead Town Board member, was serving his last year on the five-member board that governs this town of 8,600. He shared his top-three goals with colleagues. “At the top of that list was to honor indigenous people, and start the process of moving away from the celebration of Columbus Day,” Rooney, who now works as the Democratic office manager at the Erie County Board of Elections, told me.

Rooney began brainstorming ways to push Newstead to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but ended up getting help from an unlikely source. The next month, an entirely separate protest boosted his efforts.

Nearby Lancaster High School was debating whether to change its name from the “Redskins,” a slur used against Native Americans and stubbornly shared by an NFL team in Washington (recently, Native groups across America have been mounting a campaign against the term, especially in the sports world). Amid heightened tensions between the high school and local Native Americans, the lacrosse team at Akron High School (which is in the town of Newstead), refused to play against Lancaster unless it changed its name.

Sixteen of Akron’s 21 lacrosse players were members of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, a local tribe whose reservation is several miles outside of Newstead. Although Native Americans only make up 1% of the town’s total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, lacrosse has its origins in a Native American game.

“I not only love this game—and not only love it because I play for my friends and my team—I love it because I play for my people,” Akron team captain Larson Sundown, a tribe member, told USA Today about the decision to boycott Lancaster.

“It is our game, and there’s a certain amount of respect that Native Americans should get. I mean, when we play football and we step out on your field, we bring our utmost respect. And when you step out on our field, and you bring disrespect, there’s a problem.”

White teammates and coaches followed the players’ lead.

“If you’ve never met a Native American, you might not understand what they find offensive and why they find it offensive,” Akron coach Bryan Bellis told USA Today. “And then you know people, and you start to understand.”

“Every Columbus Day that is celebrated is a dig at Native Americans. My hope is that one day it becomes a forgotten holiday.”

- Justin Rooney, former Newstead Town Board member

The movement quickly picked up steam. Other school districts jumped on board, refusing to play Lancaster until it changed its name. Then, several months later in June, the Lancaster School Board unanimously voted to become the Lancaster Legends.

By this time, Rooney, the former Newstead Town Board member, was still pressing his case for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“Being a mostly Irish guy growing up in the area that has a pretty high percentage of Native Americans, you see why how we treat that history is so important,” he said of the neighboring Tonawanda reservation. “I figured I had the opportunity to do something with that as a council member.”

Inspired by Lancaster’s decision to get rid of its offensive name, three weeks later, the town of Newstead unanimously designated the second Monday of every October to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The move established Newstead’s place in the growing but still nascent movement of American cities and states redefining Columbus Day.

Last year, Newstead honored Akron High School’s lacrosse team; and this year, the town is planning another celebration featuring indigenous music and food

Rooney says America can learn from these events in Newstead, where human decency took precedence over the partisan politics that often cloud these types of decisions. When his proposal to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day passed, Rooney was the sole Democrat on the five-member board, along with two Republicans and two Conservatives.

“I always tell people that if we were able to do this in a predominantly conservative town, there’s no reason that Congress or other bodies of people that are in positions of power can’t get together to do something that’s right,” he said.

“Every Columbus Day that is celebrated is a dig at Native Americans. My hope is that one day it becomes a forgotten holiday.”

Collier Meyerson contributed to this report