Columbus Day may get renamed in Minneapolis: Indigenous Peoples' Day

Jay Bad Heart Bull
Native American Community Development Institute President Jay Bad Heart Bull says replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day would honor American Indians contributions to Minneapolis.
Jon Collins / MPR News

It was 45 years ago that Bill Means, then a young soldier in Vietnam, opened the military newspaper Stars and Stripes to find a photo of his brother, Russell, a prominent American Indian activist, leading a protest against Columbus Day.

The American Indian Movement emerged in the 1960s from the streets of south Minneapolis, a longtime cultural crossroads for American Indian communities in the Midwest. And the burst of activism that followed has focused on all sorts of issues from treaty rights to sports mascots.

But the celebration of Columbus Day still rankles Bill Means.

"We had been edited out of existence in the public school system," Means said. "To say Columbus discovered America is one of the first lies we're told in public education."

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That particular struggle may be coming to an end, at least in Minneapolis.

On Friday, the City Council will consider a resolution that would re-designate Columbus Day as Indigenous People's Day. It would follow in the steps of cities like Berkeley, Calif. and states like South Dakota, which made the change more than two decades ago.

"It's only right that we begin to document the contributions of Indian people to the history of the state of Minnesota, starting with the biggest myth of all: Columbus discovered America," Means said. "This is just a real...recognition of our contributions."

Strong support on council

The resolution is being carried by Ward 9 Council Member Alondra Cano. She said that nine other council members had signed on as co-authors as of Thursday morning, although some others have signaled their support.

"Council members here have been really supportive, really open to the idea," Cano said. "We've been working collaboratively on language and helping folks find the middle ground, and helping people understand why this is important."

Cano represents the Minneapolis neighborhood that includes Little Earth, the only urban housing development that is focused mostly on American Indians.

"This has been a long day coming and people are going to feel really good about how we're moving forward and advancing a racial equity agenda that really elevates the voice and contributions of American Indian people." Cano said.

Although the initial efforts to stop recognizing Columbus Day started almost a half century ago, the idea emerged again in a mayoral candidate forum organized last year by the Native American Community Development Institute.

Daniel Yang, an organizer for the institute, said candidates fielded direct questions from the audience.

"One of the questions that arose was talking about Columbus Day and how that was associated with a lot of pain and hurt still in indigenous communities," Yang said. "Would any of the candidates be willing to unrecognize Columbus Day and replace that with an Indigenous People's Day?"

Some of the candidates, including current Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, were receptive to the idea. Yang said the mayor and council members like Cano have been instrumental in helping it move forward and maintaining contact with the community.

Although passage of the Minneapolis resolution would make the city the first in the state to take the step, a similar proposal is scheduled for consideration in Red Wing, Minn. later this month.

Columbus' legacy in American Indian communities

Native American Community Development Institute President Jay Bad Heart Bull said Columbus Day represents the threats that American Indians have faced since Europeans came to the continent, including disease, conquest, dislocation and disruptions of their cultures.

He said pushing back against the popular conception that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America is part of reclaiming their history.

"A lot of kids and adults grew up thinking that Columbus was this great guy who contributed a lot to world history," Bad Heart Bull said. "He actually led a lot of devastating movements against indigenous people"

For a community that has often felt alienated from power in the city, the largely symbolic recognition that would come with the declaration of "Indigenous People's Day" would be a public acknowledgement of the community's existence, as well as its importance to the city's culture.

"We're still here, we're still vibrant and we're still contributing, despite all of the hardships, starting from Columbus to the U.S. government, perpetrated against our people," Jay Bad Heart Bull said. "We're still contributing a lot to society to make this a better place, not only for ourselves but for everybody that we live in dominant society with."

Supporters of the resolution are planning a celebration Friday morning, starting at 8:30 a.m. It will include appearances by Mayor Betsy Hodges, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and state Rep. Susan Allen, the first American Indian woman to serve in the state Legislature.

It will also include a reflection by Clyde Bellecourt, who helped found the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis that broached the issue of renaming Columbus Day all those decades ago.

Supporters of the resolution said its successful passage would be a testament to early activists like Bellecourt and Means.

"We see this as a fulfillment on the promise to previous generations that all of that was not in vain," said Bad Heart Bull. "We're going to continue to keep pushing and making sure that we are making sustainable change, and making powerful change, for the generations after us."