OPINION | Indigenous Peoples Day in Minneapolis: 20-plus years of activism precede the city’s resolution


“In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

But everything else in the childhood rhyme,

Ignores the historic details and genocide.”

— From “Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two (The Rewrite),” by Dana W. Hall

Where should we start? In 1492, Cristoforo Colombo, an explorer from the Republic of Genoa (now part of Italy), sailing under the flag of the Crown of Castile (now Spain), set off to find the fastest route to the gold and spices of the Orient. He set off westward in the Atlantic Ocean, and ended up in the Caribbean, quite a long way from East Asia.

On his first voyage, Christopher Columbus, who was wrong in nearly all of his geographic suppositions, came ashore on an island in the present day Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Historians are not sure of which island in the Bahamas corresponds to the island that the Italian explorer called San Salvador.

Columbus encountered the people living on this island — known as Lucayan, Taino or Arawak – and found them to be peaceful and hospitable. They wore gold earrings and Columbus took some of the Arawaks as prisoners, demanding that they show him where they got the gold. Columbus – who made four round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas and never stepped on the North American continent – set the pattern of European colonialism in the “New World.”

Let’s jump ahead 500 years, to 1992, and the “National Columbus Quincentennial” celebration, the official festivities marking the explorer’s first voyage of “discovery.” President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Congress established something called the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission to coordinate the official events in the U.S.

In Minneapolis, I got involved with something called the Circles of 500 Quincentennial Fall Festival and Pageant, an alternative community celebration coordinated by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Specifically, I was hired as editor of the Circles of 500 magazine. The other day I found a box of files containing my research into Columbus – the history, the official Columbus celebration and the myriad counterpoint efforts around the world. American Indian organizations, church groups with Indian ministries, the American Library Association and other outfits published reams of pamphlets and study guides to rectify the historical record.

The Science Museum of Minnesota hosted a Columbus exhibit, which included a two-thirds size replica of the Nina, a smaller ship that sailed from Spain in 1492. On May 29, 1992, American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Vernon Bellecourt greeted the “First Encounters” exhibit by splattering a pint of blood on the replica ship’s sail and deck. Then he threw the Columbus mannequin overboard. “This is symbolic of the blood spilled by Indian people,” he explained.

I miss Vernon.

Also in 1992, the newspaper I edit and publish, the American Jewish World, reported that Hillel at the U of M and the American Indian Student Cultural Center joined in an event marking the Columbus voyage, which led to the “virtual annihilation of the Native American population,” and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 (this was part of a Christian religious initiative known as the Spanish Inquisition).

I mention these events to show that there have been 20-plus years of activism preceding the April 25 resolution, by the Minneapolis mayor and City Council, recognizing the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day.

The City Council chambers were packed when council member Alondra Cano read the resolution, which also encourages the city’s efforts to “promote the well-being and growth” of the local “American Indian and Indigenous community.”

There were some brief speeches by Minneapolis Indian leaders and council members. I’ll just mention that Blong Yang, a new member of the City Council, thoughtfully observed that the official resolution “doesn’t replace Columbus Day, it adds another group of folks to be recognized on the same day.”

The elected official was referring to the federal Columbus Day holiday, which was established in 1937. After the passage of the resolution, I asked U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison what he could do on the national level, vis-à-vis Columbus Day.

“We’re going to start researching it and figure out how we can replicate the good work of the Minneapolis City Council,” said Ellison, as he walked to the elevator in City Hall. “We just started thinking about it today – probably should have thought about it long ago.”

Ellison mentioned that there’s a Congressional Native American Caucus (co-chaired by Rep. Betty McCollum, from Minnesota’s Fourth District). “We’re going to begin this vital conversation. Even this resolution passed today began because some people said, ‘Hey, we should do this.’ So, today we’ve been inspired to say, ‘What should we be doing on the federal level?’ And I think there’s plenty that could be done.”

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