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NO 'DAY' FOR YOU! OKC City Council sends clear message to indigenous community

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Norman-based congressional candidate Christina Owen tries to convince a largely unmoved OKC Mayor Mick Cornett and City Council to approve Indigenous Peoples' Day.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – The air of sadness and disappointment was almost palpable in the City Council chambers this morning, as the council – just as they did last year – rejected another call from central Oklahoma’s indigenous community to get Indigenous Peoples’ Day officially recognized in Oklahoma’s capital city.

But look down the road to Anadarko, Oklahoma and you see a town that recognizes its rich, indigenous heritage - and embraces it, wholeheartedly.

Here, not so much. At least not on the city government level.

Mayor Mick Cornett’s lack of real leadership and concern about the Native community speaks volumes. One indigenous speaker reminded him and the rest of the council that they will remember this day – and this vote – when election time comes around.

Cornett and his arch-conservative colleagues simply refuse to budge on this issue, despite Pete White (Ward 4) and Ed Shadid’s (Ward 2) comforting words and acknowledgement that Indigenous Peoples’ Day will come to Oklahoma City. It’s just a matter of time, indicated Shadid, who showed his trademark compassion and progressive wisdom when addressing the issue.

The numerous citizens who spoke, largely did not go on about Christopher Columbus’s well-recorded list of atrocities against the indigenous people of the Americas, after his arrival on behalf of the gold-greedy Spanish monarchy back in 1492. Those shocking facts were largely addressed last year. This time, the tone was positive, inclusive and generally uplifting. Indigenous Peoples’ Day would be a win-win for everyone, they said. A parade, even. What's not to like?

Right-wingers Mark Stonecipher and James Greiner tried to come off as willing to meet “somewhere in the middle” on the issue by suggesting Indigenous Peoples’ Day be held in August, on a day when the United Nations recognizes Indigenous People. It was a half-baked idea and not accepted. It would be the second Monday in October or nothing. Same for the idea of combining the “Red Earth” festival and IPD. Not. Gonna. Happen. The symbolism of having Indigenous Peoples' Day on the same day as Columbus Day does send a message - that America, and Oklahoma City, are made up of more than just descendents of white Europeans.

And for all of Shadid’s intelligent words and discernment and the words  from the indigenous people who took time out of their day to address the council, well, it had little effect on the final outcome of the vote. Only Shadid, White and a particularly grouchy John A. Pettis Jr. (Ward 7) ended up voting for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And the dark cloud of disappointment hung even lower in that room as sad-faced activists exited the council chambers.

Ed Shadid. A statesman surrounded by two councilmen who fear the future. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

What those in the audience heard from the “no” crowd on the council horseshoe is their shame and our continued embarrassment. It’s too divisive. What about Italian-Americans? What about Joe DiMaggio? Go talk to the feds. It’s a federal holiday. Write your congressman. Blah, blah, blah. Two women in front of me guffawed at these excuses. If Oklahoma City doesn’t even recognize Columbus Day, what is the problem with recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

And yet sitting under those art deco ceiling lamps, decorated with Native American figures, the irony of it all flew over the heads of the "no" crowd on this moribund, rubber-stamp council, most of whom act like petulant children who refuse to eat their vegetables. 

“Christopher Columbus Day should be abolished. There’s no valid reason to keep it,” said Christina Owen on her Facebook page after the vote. She is a firm ally of the Indigenous Peoples' Day cause. Owen gets it.

Owen is a Norman woman and Democrat who is running in the 4th District for U.S. House of Representatives against incumbent Tom Cole (a member of the Chickasaw Nation) and Libertarian Sevier White.

Owen also said that the council was being disrespectful and condescending to the Native community by offering the UN-linked Aug. 9th option without even discussing it with Native representatives. But not including the indigenous community – or any underrepresented community in OKC – on any big issue, is par for the course at City Hall.

The Choctaw words “okla” and “humma” (today’s “Oklahoma,” of course) translate as “land of the red people” and was originally suggested by Choctaw leader Allen Wright, who lived in Boggy Depot. One wonders what Chief Allen Wright would think, 130 years after his passing, about what was happening here in the state’s capital city?

One of Wright’s fellow Choctaws, David Hill with the American Indian Movement, addressed the council as well, saying: “A lot of cities in America have abolished Columbus Day. Albuquerque recently. Seattle … to name a few. And to celebrate a day for Columbus is to hold him up as a hero. He started slavery in America. He started sex trafficking in America. He started exploitation and torture in America.”

Watching one impassioned person after another – most were indigenous, nearly all were female – plead with the council members, most of whom glared back with loveless eyes and faces hardened by indifference, it made me feel sad for their community and our entire community of Oklahoma City. We are better than this.

That these men – and one woman – continue to disappoint and not really listen to their constituents, thereby degrading and insulting their desire to be recognized, once and for all, it’s all so horrible and unnecessary.

It’s as though the council – our representatives, allegedly - wants this done on their terms and if you don’t like it, tough. The only conclusion reached is that they are willfully not representing the people they claim to represent. But why? What is the real reason? Why anger so many people? Is it a fear of change? What is the upside for Mick Cornett? Larry McAtee? David Greenwell? Meg Salyer? Mark Stonecipher? Am I missing something or is it the ugly thing I see in front of me and don't want to acknowledge? I mean, Stonecipher seems like he would get it. After all, his ancestors successfully fled the Armenian genocide a century ago. And yet this one resolution offends him just a little too much.

From where I was sitting, the mayor and 6 of the 8 council members come across as defensive and even shocked that Native people in their community are demanding a day of their own, which would be followed by a parade and goodwill for all.

Maybe the indigenous community will just hold the parade anyway. Or maybe they will petition and protest City Hall. Who knows, maybe boycotts of certain businesses and events will be next. I'm not saying it will happen. Just saying it could happen. Only time will tell.

Interestingly, one of the speakers, Johnnie Jae, noted in a sign she had …

Johnnie Jae. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

1.      Red Earth is not Indigenous Peoples Day

2.      UN’s World Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not a substitute.

3.      If you can recognize the UN’s World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, you can recognize the native Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Seems altogether reasonable. And stated quite clearly.

And while this is another blow for the IPD movement, I know they will continue and fight for what they believe is right, here in a state which translates "Land of the Red People." 

If this issue interests you, take this new RDR poll. Or, better yet, challenge the "no" crowd" in the next election. I think four of them are up for re-election. Give 'em a real fight this time - for a better and more inclusive Oklahoma City.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reporter E.I. Hillin will have a full account of today's City Council meeting and vote in an upcoming article. Read it here.

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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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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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