A little over a year ago, the New Paltz School District Board of Education passed a resolution which renamed the controversial holiday, Columbus Day, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Now, the Town of New Paltz is following in their footsteps. During a January Town Board meeting, the idea of renaming Columbus Day as Lenape Day was initially tabled, but recently passed unanimously.
The Esopus Tribe, also referred to as the Esopus Munsee Tribe, after the language Munsee which they spoke, is a tribe of the greater Tribe of Lenape. They are native to Upstate New York, particularly in Ulster and Sullivan counties, including New Paltz. The tribe fought a series of conflicts against settlers of the New Netherland colony from 1659-1663; these wars, fought in and around the area of Kingston, New York, are known as the Esopus Wars. When the conflict ceased, the tribe sold large areas of land to French Huguenot refugees in New Paltz and surrounding communities.
Historic Huguenot Street has made strides in promoting not only Huguenot history, but the Native American history of New Paltz. In April 2017, for example, a commemorative wigwam was constructed for the anniversary of the land agreement between the Esopus Munsee Tribe and the Huguenots. More recent events hosted by the National Historic Landmark District of Huguenot Street reflect the diligence in recognizing to whom the land belonged to before us. On Feb. 18 from 4-5 p.m. at Deyo Hall, “Historic Huguenot Street will host “Mapping the Patent,” a presentation of the first land survey of the New Paltz patent and its early divisions,” according to the organization’s website.
Awareness is not only being raised in New Paltz; the movement to disavow Columbus Day and instead recognize the plights of indigenous peoples has graced newspaper headlines across the country in recent years. Campuses across the country have adopted Indigenous People’s Day. Across New York State, too, the moral implications of celebrating Christopher Columbus are hotly debated.
An article from The New York Times offers the perspective of the opposition: “Columbus was instrumental in creating the Trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Cliff Matias, the director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council. ‘‘He massacred, raped and pillaged hundreds of thousands of Taino Indians, committing crimes against humanity at such a high rate. So when we have a Christopher Columbus statue up anywhere, we‚ honoring a criminal.”
Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York State took a different stance, enunciating that the holiday is not necessarily concerned with celebrating the actions of Columbus, but rather celebrating Italian-American heritage.
“It’s not about Christopher Columbus,” Cuomo said at a festival in Sept. 2017. “It’s about the millions of Italian-Americans who came to this country under hard circumstances and made it what it is.”
Despite a range of views on Christopher Columbus and what the celebration of Columbus Day means, the town of New Paltz made important moves away from the actions of the famed explorer.
Dan Torres, who spearheaded the adoption of, Lenape Day, spoke of the significance of the name change:
“The Lenape Tribe is the original tribe of New Paltz,” he said. “Often people do not know which indigenous peoples’ lived where they are, but we know the specific indigenous group here in New Paltz.”
Torres respectfully asked permission to adopt the name. “I reached out to the Lenape Chief in Oklahoma and asked about the name change,” Torres said. “He liked the idea.”
With the specificity of the name “Lenape Day” comes a sharpened awareness of local and town history, according to Torres.
“It is important that we acknowledge those who lived here before us,” he said. “Often American history is thought of as just the past 200, 300 years, but people resided in our area long before us.”
The etymology of the Lenape, often referred to as the Lenni Lenape, or Leni Lenape, connects the the word Lenape, which means “Indian,” or “man,” with the autonym Lenni which can mean “pure,” “genuine,” or “real.”