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Fargo changes Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day

Willard Yellow Bird, cultural planner for the City of Fargo, performs a blessing ceremony Monday at City Square in Fargo, prior to a petition at the City Commission meeting to recognize each second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO – The Fargo City Commission abolished Columbus Day as a city-observed holiday on Monday and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day after a weeks-long effort by Native American activists and their supporters.

The resolution, which passed 4-1, cited the “brutal history” of Christopher Columbus, but other more critical language had been removed in order to improve the resolution’s chances of success.

The only “no” vote came from Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who called the resolution “divisive” and said he wanted it to be a “positive thing.”

Clinton Alexander, chairman of the city’s Native American Commission, said the point of changing the holiday was not to denigrate anyone. Instead, he said, it was to highlight atrocities caused by Columbus and “to recognize the contributions of indigenous people.”

After the vote, cheers came from the crowd of more than 80 people who packed into city chambers. “We just won a battle,” said Willard Yellow Bird Jr., a city cultural planner who works closely with the Native American Commission.

Supporters of the resolution said it corrected the flawed historical account of Columbus, who, children learn, sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

The accomplishments attributed to Columbus are mythical and replace the reality of the explorer’s destructive effect on indigenous people, said Don Warne, director of the Master of Public Health program at North Dakota State University.

“I’m 49 years old, so in the early ’70s was when I was first exposed to the idea of Columbus Day,” Warne told the city commissioners. “It turns out everything I learned was wrong.”

As an example, Warne pointed out the flaws in the notion that Columbus discovered America: Another European beat him to it by landing in Newfoundland, and, Warne added, “Columbus never set foot in what is now the United States.”

Warne drew laughter and applause when he mocked the idea that Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean, could discover a place with pre-existing residents.

“I’m actually the first Lakota to go to medical school at Stanford University,” Warne said. Therefore, he was the man who discovered Stanford, he argued.

As well as laughs, there were tears and deep frustration as members of the public stood at the podium, appealing to city commissioners.

In their comments, they explained feeling that their Native American heritage received no attention, while Columbus – who treated indigenous people with cruelty – got a holiday named after him.

Jamie Holding Eagle, 33, who was born and raised in Fargo, said that when she learned about the history of North Dakota in the fourth grade, she learned more trivial facts – like “that there’s the biggest turtle” here – while there was not “a single word in there about the native people.”

Not only Native Americans supported the resolution. Scott Mathern-Jacobson, a 44-year-old, white, Catholic Fargo resident, offered an apology for the church’s role in mythologizing Columbus.

While most speakers lobbied to pass the resolution, Michael Yellow Bird, a sociology professor at NDSU, blasted it because it had been watered down in order to be more palatable to city commissioners.

The resolution underwent several versions over multiple weeks. References to the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny, concepts that assisted in European colonization efforts, were removed along with harsher language about atrocities committed by Columbus.

“A lof the really important language has been gutted from this resolution,” Yellow Bird said. “I think it’s inadequate, I think it’s dishonest, I think it’s lacking. … You are seeking to deny this history and therefore allowing this genocide to be forgotten.”

But Commissioner Tony Gehrig described the changes as a compromise. “I had a lot of suggestions, and most of them were incorporated in this,” he said.

Piepkorn, however, said the resolution was too negative for his taste. He said Native Americans should be satisfied with a national holiday called Native American Heritage Day.

Commissioner Mike Williams disagreed. Columbus, he said, is “somebody that doesn’t deserve any recognition.”

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