The city of Red Wing may soon bid bon voyage to Columbus Day.
At the urging of the city’s Human Rights Commission, Red Wing City Council members are exploring the idea of rededicating the October holiday to something that honors the area’s early settlers instead of a man some historians consider less than worthy of celebration.
The commission argues that Columbus Day is ripe for change because much of what has been taught about Columbus isn’t true — he did not discover what is now the United States, and he was cruel to the people he encountered after setting sail in 1492.
Some City Council members met for a workshop this week to discuss renaming the holiday to First Peoples’ Day. Reaction among council members was mostly favorable, officials said, though it will need a full City Council vote to be passed. Council members also want input from the local Prairie Island Indian community before voting.
A person not to celebrate
“It’s just more and more obvious that [Columbus] is not a person that we ought to be celebrating,” said Scott Bender, a Human Rights Commission member who started the push for change. While a few states such as South Dakota have changed the holiday name, Bender said he believes Red Wing would be a leader among cities in Minnesota, and he hopes others would follow.
Bender, who teaches eighth-grade social studies, said he has been studying Columbus — including reading some of his writings — for more than 20 years. Textbooks do a poor job of telling what happened, he said.
Columbus landed in the Caribbean Islands and enslaved the indigenous people to mine for gold, according to the commission’s website, and Columbus was later imprisoned by his own king. Also, Norse explorers were in North America for several centuries before that.
City Council President Lisa Bayley said Red Wing has its own rich history to celebrate.
“We are named after Chief Red Wing,” she said. “We have this very thriving Indian community within our borders.”
Prairie Island tribal leaders said they hadn’t seen the proposed resolution and couldn’t comment specifically on it. “The Mdewakanton Dakota have lived on Prairie Island and in the Red Wing area for countless generations, and the Tribal Council appreciates any effort to recognize and honor the unique cultural and historical connection of the Mdewakanton Dakota to the Red Wing area,” the tribal council wrote in a statement.
Bayley said she’s heard mostly positive feedback about the possible change but said one citizen worried that it would be confusing if the local and national names for the holiday were different.
“At first blush, it seemed almost laughably politically correct,” Bayley acknowledged. “But we’ve tasked our Human Rights Commission with identifying and addressing inequality in the community and educating our community about discrimination and about human rights.”
Columbus Day has taken a beating over time. In 1988, Hawaii changed the name to Discoverers’ Day. South Dakota then changed it to Native American Day. Though the holiday is a federal one, other states have passed laws removing Columbus Day from their list of approved holidays. Many others don’t observe it. The day is not listed on the Minnesota state holiday schedule.
It is not a city holiday for most employees in Red Wing, either, Bayley said. So the name change there would be largely symbolic.
“But symbols are potent,” she said. “They’re important reminders of how a community views its citizens.”