Council Votes to Replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day

Tuesday, October 4, 2016, 6:45 am
Ian Hoopingarner

Above: Emmy Scott speaking to East Lansing's City Council on September 27.

This year, for the first time in its history, instead of Columbus Day, the City of East Lansing will celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October.

This comes after a resolution was passed by the City Council last Tuesday, September 27th, 2016, declaring that the federal holiday named after Christopher Columbus will instead be identified by the City as Indigenous People’s Day in recognition “of Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Indigenous Nations who have lived upon this land since time immemorial” and “the progress our society has accomplished through Native American thought and culture.”

"Indigenous People" is the increasingly preferred terminology for the people who have alternatively been called Native American and American Indians.

The East Lansing Human Relations Commission drafted the resolution over a period of about one year, beginning in late fall of 2015—around the same time that the cities of Lawrence, Kansas, and Portland, Oregon, passed Indigenous People’s Day resolutions. During the research phase, members of the Commission examined similar proposals in other cities across the country, explained Commissioner Julia Christensen last Tuesday at Council.

Although many cities and municipalities across the United States have established some kind of holiday for indigenous people, not all of them have explicitly replaced Columbus Day. Christensen said during her testimony at Tuesday’s Council meeting that if East Lansing approved the resolution, it would be one of the first in the country to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. In her address, Christensen noted that East Lansing has been “in the forefront” of civil rights legislation historically, as when it became the first municipality in the U.S. to pass civil rights protections for LGBT individuals.

Many people attended the September 27th City Council meeting specifically to support replacing Columbus Day, including Cassandra Shavrnoch, co-director of the North American Indigenous Student Association at MSU, which collaborated with the Human Relations Commission on early drafts of the resolution. No one spoke against the resolution.

Those who testified in support included Dylan Miner, of Metis heritage, who teaches at MSU. He highlighted the large number of Anishnaabe speakers in the mid-Michigan area, and suggested that policies recognizing indigenous struggles would go a long way toward countering negative cultural attitudes that still allow schools and teams to use caricatures of Native American as mascots.

Estrella Torrez, who also teaches at MSU and helps mentor close to 200 students in the local area as part of the Indigenous Youth Empowerment Service, explained that the educational curriculum frequently instills in indigenous children a false belief that indigenous societies and people no longer exist.

Emmy Scott, a second-year law student at MSU College of Law and a member of the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska, also testified in favor of the resolution. Scott linked the celebration of Columbus to current issues faced by the indigenous community in mid-Michigan, particularly sex trafficking of indigenous women and girls. Historians have documented Columbus’ brutality towards and enslavement of indigenous peoples.

Bill Bigelow, an Oregon high school teacher and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, wrote last year in a column for the Huffington Post that “Columbus initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in early February 1494, first sending several dozen enslaved Taínos to Spain… and recommended to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that taxing slave shipments could help pay for supplies needed in the Indies.”

An Indigenous People’s Day resolution passed by Seattle in 2014, as well as ones passed in Minneapolis and Traverse City, directly inspired the resolution passed by East Lansing last week, sharing in many places identical language and structure. The vote at East Lansing’s Council on the resolution was 3-0, with Mayor Mark Meadows and Councilmembers Shanna Draheim and Erik Altmann in attendance, and Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier and Councilmember Susan Woods absent from the meeting.

The East Lansing resolution specifically calls for Indigenous People’s Day to replace Columbus Day, and says the day “shall be used to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples on this land and to celebrate the thriving cultures and value that the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and other indigenous peoples contribute to communities through Michigan, the United States of America, and all over the world.”


Note: Per a reader's suggestion, after original publication this sentence was added: "'Indigenous People' is the increasingly preferred terminology for the people who have alternatively been called Native American and American Indians."

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