ROCKAWAY — Another Morris County school district has backtracked and re-added Columbus Day to its calendar, after initially opting to swap the holiday for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The Rockaway Board of Education on Wednesday night voted to reinstate for 2022-2023 the traditional holiday honoring Christopher Columbus, who has become a polarizing figure in recent years.

A Facebook group called “Italian Americans in Rockaway Township NJ” had urged supporters to attend, leading up to the meeting.

“Please attend the meeting and stand shoulder to shoulder with us as we demand equal treatment and fight to end institutional discrimination against Italian Americans,” a post said.

Other messages by the group said that children of Italian American heritage were being “targeted.”

Students in the district were off for Columbus Day this year.

Months earlier, the Randolph community erupted after Board of Education members first voted to replace Columbus Day — then briefly drop all holiday names for generic days off, until reinstating the calendar "to the way it was," before the 2021-2022 school year began.

“Columbus Day reinstated on the school 2022 calendar by the Rockaway Township Board of Ed. Great work by UNICO, Knights of Columbus and IAOVC,” Anthony Bengivenga of UNICO National wrote on Facebook, alongside a group of meeting attendees holding a large Italian flag.

History re-examined

The idea of observing Indigenous Peoples Day, which recognizes Native Americans as the first inhabitants of the land that later became the United States of America, has been taken up by several communities in the past few years.

The Paterson Board of Education voted this past summer to replace Columbus Day with Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day, to be celebrated on the second Monday in October.

Newark has been observing Indigenous Peoples Day since 2017, as the holiday also appears on the city's school district calendars.

Last fall, Montclair also added Indigenous Peoples Day to its public school calendar, as approved by the Montclair Township Board of Education at a September 2020 meeting.

Princeton municipal officials voted in 2019 to observe Indigenous Peoples Day.

Among supporters of maintaining Columbus Day, many refer to wanting to honor their ancestors, particularly in light of the gruesome killings of 11 Italian Americans in March 1891 in New Orleans.

The deadly violence remains one of the largest mass lynchings on record in U.S. history.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the Americas in 1492, the continents were home to indigenous populations totaling more than 60 million people, as reported by a study released in February 2019.

Over the next 100 years or so, violence and disease wound up killing 90% of the indigenous population — nearly 55 million people — according to findings published in the journal Quarternary Science Reviews.

Smallpox, diphtheria, measles, malaria, bubonic plague, yellow fever, and possibly typhus ravaged Indigenous populations, as recounted by “A New World of Infectious Disease,” a 1992 study in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.

The population drop actually led to what researchers have dubbed a “Little Ice Age,” as the planet cooled off notably between the 16th and mid-19th century.

November has evolved into Native American Heritage month, since a week-long celebration in 1986.

Since the mid-1990's, every U.S. President has issued annual proclamations designating the month as one to celebrate the culture and accomplishments of Indigenous populations across the country.

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