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Indigenous Peoples' Day resolution gets mixed reaction from The Village City Council

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THE VILLAGE, Okla. – What was intended to be an informative discussion about the positive aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ Day led to a more strained and awkward defense of Columbus Day and the “civilization” he brought to the Americas in the 15th century.

While council members were only learning about Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday night, it was clear that at  least three of the five council members – including The Village Mayor David Bennett – expressed skepticism of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, particularly when it would replace the long-established Columbus Day.

Currently, Columbus Day – observed on the second Monday in October – is a federally-recognized holiday. This year it will be observed on Oct. 9.

However, efforts – including those here in Oklahoma City, which have so far been unsuccessful - have been growing across the United States to replace Columbus Day with a celebration of those people who were already here prior to the arrival of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and other Europeans who were looking to do everything from expanding empires to plundering the resources in the Americas.

The Village councilwoman Cathy Cummings invited Live Indigenous OK leader Sarah Adams-Cornell, who is an Oklahoma City resident and a member of the Choctaw Nation, to offer a presentation to the full council which explained to them why The Village should adopt a resolution replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

As Adams-Cornell explained: “(Embracing Indigenous Peoples’ Day) would make The Village a leader, by being the fourth city, and probably many more to come, to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Oklahoma.”

Adams-Cornell said if The Village did embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day, they would join several Oklahoma cities and universities that have already embraced Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And then there are the towns, cities and states across the nation that have already incorporated Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“Adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day would mean a lot to the Native American community,” she said, adding, “The Village will set the standard for our city and for our state … Indigenous Peoples’ Day presents us with an opportunity to work together.”

She also said that if the council adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Live Indigenous OK would be happy to hold celebratory events at the local library, informing citizens about Native American culture and more.

But during the Q&A, Adams-Cornell was peppered with questions from council members, particularly those who could not understand why Columbus Day had to be ditched. Why not have it on another day, they asked?

Sarah Adams-Cornell, with Live Indigenous OK, addresses The Village City Council on Monday night. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Adams-Cornell patiently explained that Indigenous Peoples’ Day would “more accurately reflect … what happened here in the Americas” from the atrocities that befell indigenous people in the Americas to the fact that Italian-Americans have increasingly wanted someone else picked, since Columbus does not represent the values of their community.

Noted Adams-Cornell: “Currently a lot of schools teach that Columbus discovered America when there were millions of indigenous people already here.”

Bennett said he is uncomfortable with putting today’s norms on things that happened so long ago and that it was the Europeans, after all, who conquered and therefore wrote the history “from their perspective.” And that is the version we are taught to this day.

“It’s about telling the truth about the history of our country,” Adams-Cornell said. “It’s not an attempt to rewrite history. It’s an attempt to correct the things we’ve been taught.”

Ward 3 Councilman Hutch Hibbard seemingly defended Columbus by noting that he “started the immigration of the Europeans over to America. And without that, America as we know it, would not exist .”

Adams-Cornell countered Hibbard’s statement by reminding him that Columbus also started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“I mean, that’s horrible stuff,” Hibbard said of Columbus’s role in expanding slavery to the Americas. “There’s a lot of horrible things that happened at that time. I don’t think anybody is downplaying that.”

However, Hibbard added, at this time, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is probably not ideal.

When Adams-Cornell asked Hibbard when a “good time” would be to embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day, he seemed to shift, suggesting it should be in the hands of the federal government.

Cummings, meanwhile, shared that her Italian-American father, who grew up in the Columbus Park area of Kansas City, and she said she learned from him how important it was to “listen to the voices of those who are not heard” and to always do the right, ethical and moral thing – for everyone.

She said making Indigenous Peoples’ Day an observed day in The Village is “the right thing to do.”

Vice-Mayor Sonny Wilkinson, who also represents Ward 5, agreed with Cummings and the idea of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, after learning about his own family history, going back to Western Europe.

Rejecting some of his fellow council members' comments on keeping Columbus Day, Wilkinson said, "I don't see 'Slavery in America Day.' I don't see 'Segregation Day.'" The vice-mayor also said that Columbus Day is increasingly more reviled than it is celebrated or embraced.

Meanwhile, Ward 2 councilman Bubba Symes reminded those in attendance that Columbus “did discover America for civilization” and that history is replete with “atrocities.” But he thought that if Columbus Day is changed, “where do you stop?”

Open to “compromise,” Symes suggested the celebrating the Aug. 9th United Nations-sanctioned International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, rather than replacing Columbus Day, because “of all the bad things” he did. Adams-Cornell would say that IPD is for strictly the indigenous peoples within the United States.

Symes would go on to repeat the Columbus “discovered” America brought along “civilization,” something Adams-Cornell denied, saying Columbus did not “discover” the indigenous people already living in the Americas – people who had their own civilizations.

Others addressed the topic of Indigenous Peoples’ Day – most of whom were in favor of the idea, save for one resident of The Village - a member of the Cherokee Nation - who was skeptical of people from outside of The Village coming into their community and wanting to promote Indigenous Peoples' Day. One woman, of Italian-American descent, said she finds Columbus Day "embarrassing" and that it is only celebrated in larger Italian-American communities in Chicago and New York. 

Summer Wesley, a member of the Choctaw Nation and Live Indigenous OK said that those who think Indigenous Peoples' Day is divisive must remember that Columbus Day is "not inclusive of the indigenous community." Mayor Bennett, however, told Wesley and everyone that while he knows his ancestors may have done things that were upsetting in the distant past, he is about bringing everyone to the table, rather than pushing them away and is not comfortable with the Indigenous Peoples' Day "either/or" proposal of getting rid of Columbus Day and installing Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Jacintha Webster, an Oklahoma City-based attorney, supports the Live Indigenous OK efforts and told the council that what is happening here is “not an effort to rewrite history, but to update how history is told.”

Webster gave the council a short and condensed history lesson on the diverse nature of indigenous people living here prior to 1492, when Columbus “sailed the ocean blue,” as the children’s rhyme goes. And that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an effort to update a time in American history that is only now being re-examined and that efforts to get Indigenous Peoples' Day recognized are a part of that nationwide re-examination.

While The Village City Council did not take a vote on this resolution, Cummings said it would be brought up for a vote at The Village City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 2. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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