Sen. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) represents Michigan's 18th Senate district, which includes the cities of Ann Arbor, Milan (portion), Saline, and Ypsilanti, and the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Pittsfield, Salem, Superior, York and Ypsilanti.
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
For many of us, this was the poem that we learned in grade school to teach us who Columbus was and why we celebrate his legacy on the second Monday of October.
The intentions that led to the creation of Columbus Day were mostly good. We wanted to find a way to celebrate our nation’s history of immigration; we wanted to honor the many contributions that Italian-Americans have made to this nation, and we wanted to celebrate patriotism.
In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt, under pressure from the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, proclaimed Christopher Columbus Day as a federal holiday which he saw as an “opportunity to celebrate and honor the qualities of vision, faith, courage and perseverance in the face of ‘grievous trial’.” So, for the last 85 years, stories and poems were told to build up Christopher Columbus as one who risked everything to make the dangerous voyage across the ocean on behalf of the Spanish Empire where he discovered a “new world” full of opportunity and treasure.
Many of our residents were taught to revere Christopher Columbus. Myths were built up around Columbus to promote immigration and the contributions of Italian-Americans. His deeds were lionized, and his crimes and depravities were swept under the rug. As we learn more about the real history of Columbus, the more we learn that we were lied to.
For native people, Columbus Day is just another reminder of what the stories and poems leave out. Columbus — along with many Europeans who came after — enslaved, exploited, raped, and murdered the indigenous people who existed here thousands of years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas.
While it is understandable to set aside a day to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements Europeans have made since first setting foot on this continent, we should do that in a way that is genuine and honest. We also have an opportunity, and some would say an obligation, to teach ourselves and our kids about the very real tribal history here in our state.
Mackinac, Pontiac, Washtenaw, and even Michigan are names drawn from the amazing tribal heritage in our great state. Our peninsulas are full of pre-colonial history, including 12 federally-recognized tribes and significant historic sites related to tribal culture. Michigan should do more to highlight the real and rich history of indigenous people and tribal communities.
That's why I proposed SB 568, a bill to rename the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples' Day. My bill would honor Michigan's tribal history and would give citizens, schools and communities the opportunity to learn more about and celebrate the Anishinaabeg people of this land.