Ethel Branch grew up in the Navajo Nation, with its own government, flag and language. But she went to school off the reservation, where her textbooks covered indigenous people in the first few chapters, but nowhere else.
She didn’t see the contributions of her people reflected in the chapters, she said. There was no mention of modern Native Americans.
“It was confusing, and it was inaccurate,” said Branch, now a Seattle lawyer and co-chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission. “My nation is alive and continues to govern with a strong presence, so it was strange to see us disappear so quickly from the pages of history.”
Her experiences are one reason why she, with the Human Rights Commission, has encouraged the Seattle City Council to approve a resolution to designate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” on the second Monday of October, the same day as the federally recognized Columbus Day. The day would celebrate Washington tribes’ continued contributions and sovereignty and recognize what advocates call the accurate history of indigenous people.
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The proposed declaration has been met with opposition from at least one Italian-American group, which says adding the day would infringe on Italians’ right to celebrate Christopher Columbus, who was Italian.
The council is scheduled to vote on the declaration Monday afternoon.
Washington is among the states that don’t recognize Columbus Day as a legal holiday, but it still is federally recognized; mail isn’t delivered that day and federal workers have the day off.
Some states and cities have renamed the day: South Dakota celebrates “Native Americans Day” on the second Monday of October, in Hawaii it’s known as Discoverers’ Day, and Minneapolis renamed it Indigenous Peoples Day earlier this year.
The Seattle School Board voted last week to have public schools observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October, and the Bellingham City Council will vote next week on whether to recognize the day as Coast Salish Day.
Idea born years ago
The idea for Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federal holiday to replace Columbus Day was first formally proposed in 1977 by a Native American delegation to a United Nations-sponsored international conference focusing on indigenous people. In 2011, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing 59 tribes, passed a resolution supporting the change of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“A true and accurate account of the residence and occupation of the Americas by Indigenous people since time immemorial, and long before Christopher Columbus sailed, is necessary to set the historical record straight and to respect the culture, language and traditional life ways of our Indigenous ancestors,” the resolution stated.
The 2011 resolution laid part of the groundwork for Seattle, according to Matt Remle, who drafted the Seattle resolution after he saw that Minneapolis had renamed the day. Remle, who is Lakota, lives in Seattle and works as the Native American liaison in the Marysville School District, where many students are from the Tulalip Tribes.
The resolution received the support of multiple groups, including the Seattle Human Rights Commission, and the measure was introduced by City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Bruce Harrell.
“I think it acknowledges our history here in Seattle,” Harrell said. “We are named after an indigenous person (Chief Sealth). It acknowledges that we were not the first ones here, and we can celebrate that.”
Columbus as a symbol
Columbus often shows up in elementary-school lessons with a story of discovery: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue on the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
Opinions and accounts about Columbus differ, but modern historians agree that the real story is much more complicated.
“He’s seen as a complex figure, but not a hero,” University of Washington associate professor Adam Warren said. “And that history is much more problematic.”
Throughout the years, Columbus became less a historical figure and more a symbol, though opinions also differ on what he symbolizes. For many Native Americans, Columbus is a symbol of colonialism, Branch said.
For Tony Anderson, president of the Order Sons of Italy in America’s Grand Lodge of the Northwest, Columbus symbolizes something much different.
“He’s a symbol of the era of explorers,” said Anderson, of Tacoma. “Being of Italian heritage, I am proud of the fact that he was Italian. It’s just that simple.”
The differing opinions were evident at a recent Seattle City Council committee meeting. The meeting was attended by Native groups and representatives from Order Sons of Italy in America, which is a national organization for men and women with Italian heritage. At one point during Remle’s testimony, attendees who said they opposed the resolution walked out of the room.
“At the council committee meeting I asked opponents what celebrating this day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day would do to infringe on the rights of people who want to celebrate Columbus on that day,” Branch said. “The question was not well-received.”
Anderson said he thinks the City Council has shown disrespect to the Italian-American community. According to him, a “couple hundred” postcards have been signed and mailed to Mayor Ed Murray and council members about the declaration. He called Councilmember Nick Licata, who is Italian-American, “not a very good Italian” for supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“They’ve stacked the deck against Italian Americans,” Anderson said. “None of this has anything against Native American people; this is nothing personal against them.”
Anderson said he and others who oppose the measure don’t object to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but they object to its being on the second Monday of October. Advocates say having it on the same day doesn’t actually replace anything, but is a step toward reconciliation.
“It’s an additional celebration, a time to celebrate a rich part of our history,” Harrell said. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day gives indigenous people a way to celebrate their historical recollection, but it doesn’t take away anyone else’s ability to celebrate Columbus Day in a way they want to celebrate.”
Amid the debates, Remle said the movement for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day has spread across Indian Country and beyond.
“We hope the resolution passes with unanimous support,” Branch said. “It will be a tremendous historic event.”
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or email@example.com