“It’s a good day to be indigenous in Minneapolis,” said teacher/attorney/activist Carly Bad Heart Bull to a crowd of about 500 Monday evening at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, where people of all ethnicities and backgrounds came to bury Columbus Day and celebrate the first Indigenous Peoples Day, as voted on by the Minneapolis City Council and recently lampooned by the likes of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver (“Columbus Day: How Is That Still A Thing?”) and comedian Chris Rock, who cracked, “Nobody celebrates Columbus Day. Nobody puts three ships in their front yard. First of all Columbus discovered the West Indies and second of all, the land he discovered had occupants on it. That’s like discovering someone’s backyard.”
Columbus Day started in 1892, became a federal holiday in 1934, and Berkeley, California was the first American city to reject it and embrace Indigenous Peoples Day. Today, 16 states don’t recognize Columbus Day; Minneapolis and Seattle are the biggest cities in the United States to adopt the change, and in her address to the chatty crowd, Bad Heart Bull wryly noted that St. Paul “still celebrates Columbus Day.”
In Minneapolis, Monday’s program made for a cautiously joyous event (“It’s a joyous day, but it’s a time of remembrance of what really happened,” longtime native rights activist and American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt told Minnpost Monday) that included food, dancing, and speeches by mayor Betsy Hodges, Rep. Keith Ellison and Sen. Al Franken, and native elders Bellecourt and Winona LaDuke, who gave impassioned quasi-victory speeches that mapped out ongoing injustices in the native community, from the unimpeded rape of the land and water by oil companies in Minnesota and beyond, to the blatant racism of the Washington football team’s name and logo.
All told, it was a reserved celebration compared to what future Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations surely promise, though the simmering optimism and electricity over this small but big win in the culture wars in a cozy gym and community center on Franklin Avenue yesterday was palpable, and made for an historic, if long overdue, moment of sweet revolution. In words and photos:
Emmanuel Ortiz, Minneapolis, sporting local designer Ashleigh Fairbanks’ “Racists Redskins” T-shirt. “It’s a symbolic victory, but it’s a victory nonetheless. Today is a recapturing of history, which has been so wrongly told, particularly in a city like Minneapolis, which has such a large native population. I think it’s a real morale booster and a real power shift. People actually feel like they can be heard.”
Deanna Beaulieu, Eloise Funmaker, Kaina Martinez, Minneapolis. “In years past (on Columbus Day) I thought, ‘He did not discover America, we were already here,’ and I never celebrated it. Whenever that day came around, I just thought about every wrong thing that he’s done and other people have done to the native people. Today is just a great day,” said Funmaker. “We always thought he didn’t discover anything, and why don’t we have our own day? Today is a great day,” said Martinez. “Today is a day to celebrate our heritage and culture and take the name back and celebrate the positives instead of the negatives that are part of the native community,” said Beaulieu.
Clyde Bellecourt, Minneapolis: “Today we start rewriting history and the truth of what Columbus was: the greatest pirate that ever lived. Since he landed here, virtually millions have lost their lives. Whole tribes have been totally decimated, and there’s nothing in the school history books about that. Perhaps with the designation of Indigenous Peoples Day they’ll start rewriting that history. Indian people are more than what they’ve been made out to be, heathens and savages. It’s time to rewrite that history.”
Winona LaDuke, White Earth. “I feel liberated. I mean, I always feel pretty liberated, let’s go with that, but it’s like this is an acknowledgement that we’re liberated here [in Minneapolis]. It’s funny, because I just came from Colorado, and those cats legalized hemp, legalized marijuana, ride around on their bikes, have all these microbreweries and organic food, and they still have that effin’ Columbus Day. Columbus is a really heavy thing to carry around for 500 years. Time to let it go. Our resistance, our resilience, and the fact that 500 years later empire is no longer sustainable means it’s time to come into the next plan. We’re good.”
Faye Crowghost, Minneapolis. “I’m enrolled in the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North and South Dakota and I’ve lived here for the last 14 years and I’m very proud to say that today is one of the biggest celebrations of my life. 2014 is a very great year for us, starting right here in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I’m very proud of that. I have a 7-year-old son and I’m happy that he’s going to recognize that in the future. He and all his generation have a lot to look forward to.”
David Huckfelt and Michael Rossetto, Minneapolis. “I’ve been a resident in Minneapolis for 10 years, and I’ve lived in this neighborhood for the last three or four years, and I fully support changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day,” said Huckfelt. “Minneapolis has a got an incredibly unique history with the founding of the American Indian Movement here, and I’m glad it started here and it’s catching on with other cities and states. Getting a little older and reading Howard Zinn and asking questions, it doesn’t take too long to find out that there’s something amiss about what happened when Columbus landed on this continent.”
George McCauley, South St. Paul. “I belong to the Omaha tribe of Nebraska. It’s an historic day because the truth is finally being told and people are finally knowing what they read in the history books is all made up. People are finally seeing what is real and the Indian people are still here, and still proud, and still surviving. What I would like to see for future generations and for today is to see Indian people as human beings. We are not mascots. Our children, my grandchildren, are people who come from a proud race and nation and they need to know and hear that this is what we are, not the Washington Redskins and not the Atlanta Braves. We’re true Native American people, indigenous of this time.”
Mary Anne Quiroz, St. Paul (far left, with baby), with the Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli dance group. “Our group represents the Mexica-Azteca nation of Mexico, and we’re here in support of our northern brothers and sisters, trying to honor this day with a dance we call ‘Tletl,’ which is the fire dance.”
Gwe Gasco, Margaret Campbell, Will Sayers, White Earth. “I started my day by picking up the sons of my boss at Honor The Earth (Winona LaDuke), who are being home-schooled, because in the Detroit Lakes public school system, where they were going, today the curriculum would have been learning about Columbus and how Columbus discovered America,” said Campbell. “And for them to speak their truth as 14-year-old Ojibwe men, that’s a moment of growing up, when you’re confronting your teachers and authority figures who won’t hear you out. That’s what they didn’t experience today, because that’s what they’ve experienced every day in public school. They’re here today to finish off their home school assignment, which is to experience the first-ever Indigenous Peoples Day and hear speakers talking about the importance and responsibility that comes with being indigenous and fighting the people who want to put pipelines through the wild rice beds of Northern Minnesota.”
Charlie Thayer, Minneapolis and White Earth. “Today is a celebration of who we are as people, and we haven’t had the opportunity to have a day specifically for that celebration of native people. It’s important for us, today, and for the next seven generations – who we look out for, who we as native people are responsible for – to have this day as a day to celebrate.”