Columbus Day brings up bad childhood memories for Sandi Mason, an American Indian woman who recalls classmates calling her Pocahontas and squaw at her Minneapolis school.
“It wasn’t a good day for us,” she said Friday at Minneapolis City Hall. “We got teased.”
But future generations may have a different vision of the second Monday in October, following a City Council vote Friday to recognize Indigenous People’s Day on what is now Columbus Day. The city will still recognize Columbus Day for legal purposes, but the new holiday will be reflected on all official city communications — such as the city calendar and website.
The thump of traditional drumming rang through the halls as hundreds of activists gathered to commemorate the change. About 7,600 residents of Minneapolis — or 2 percent of the population — are American Indian, according to the 2010 census.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Clyde Bellecourt, a civil rights organizer. “For me, it’s been almost 50 years that we’ve been talking about this pirate.”
The action may have sparked a statewide and national movement. And similar action is happening elsewhere. The Red Wing City Council is slated to vote next week on a resolution to redesignate the holiday as First Peoples Day.
State Rep. Susan Allen, the first American Indian woman elected to the Legislature, and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison expressed interest Friday in recognizing another holiday on Columbus Day at the state and federal level.
The celebration of Columbus Day has long been a raw issue for Native Americans, who point to the explorer’s violence toward indigenous people upon arrival in the New World. Plus, some note, Columbus never reached the mainland of North America. It has been a federal holiday since 1934.
“It’s difficult to imagine, if you are from a mainstream experience, how to it feels to sit in a classroom and be told, ‘Oh yeah, well there was this darkness. Then Columbus came. Then there was light,’” Ellison said. “How dehumanizing it is to feel that way.”
Ellison said his interest in changing the federal holiday was piqued by someone who asked him about it at the City Hall gathering. “I said, ‘That’s an idea,’ ” Ellison said in an interview. “So we’re going to be thinking about it now.”
‘Setting the record straight’
Bellecourt recalled Friday that his brother, Vernon Bellecourt, threw a pint of his own blood on a replica of Columbus’ ship Niña at the St. Paul science museum in 1992. “He did that for all the blood that was drained from our community and our nation across the western hemisphere,” Clyde Bellecourt said.
Allen, speaking to the gathering of activists, thanked everyone “who year after year have protested the celebration of Columbus’ legacy of enslavement and massacre.”
New council member Alondra Cano introduced the change, with support from the Native American Community Development Institute.
“This is not necessarily about Columbus. He is not the center of our existence,” she told a gathering before the vote. “This is about the power of the American Indian people and indigenous communities all over the world. We are setting the record straight.”
Cano added that the initiative was merely a first step toward ensuring more Native Americans own homes, practice urban agriculture and succeed in academics. “There is so much work to do,” she said.
The final resolution was scaled back from another version earlier in the week, which stated that the city should rename Columbus Day itself. The final resolution does not rename Columbus Day, but rather recognizes Indigenous People’s Day on the same date. Several city ordinances and collective bargaining agreements still reference Columbus Day, said city attorney Susan Segal.
The council vote, which fell one day after Mayor Betsy Hodges held her first state of the city address at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, was unanimous.
“I represent people that have Italian history. They’re somewhat offended by this change, this recognition,” said Council President Barbara Johnson. “But I think it’s about all of us moving forward, understanding the strength that we have because of all the different groups that have impacted this community, both long ago and today — ongoing.”
Minneapolis isn’t the first city to recognize Indigenous People’s Day. The city of Berkeley, Calif., has celebrated Indigenous People’s Day since 1992. Several states also do not recognize Columbus Day.