Opinion | Michigan: It’s time to honor our Native American heritage

Sen. Jeff Irwin

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.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Christopher Duco
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 4:19pm

As a person of Cherokee and Italian decent I say make the Friday before Columbus Day your new holiday. Get it?

Sat, 10/19/2019 - 6:26am

I agree absolutely. Make it a four day weekend and celebrate both the good and the bad. Everything is so one-sided today with so much division. United we stand, divided we fall. Believe it or not Italian Americans are still victims of nasty prejudice and stereotypes albeit more covertly today than in years past. Consequently some self-hating Italian Americans want to fit in so badly that they change their names, intermarry, and become nasty immigrant-hating republicans who just want to "pass" as WASPs. Ironically these same people forget their own family immigrant hardship stories supporting Donald Trump who wants to take away birth right citizenship. The truth is that those people themselves may have their own citizen rights taken away if such laws were to pass. Nevertheless many Americans continue to hold hold veiled bigoted views towards Italian Americans, even today.

Columbus Day is/was a tiny source of pride for the vast majority of Italian Americans who are good hardworking people. Their pride stems not from the atrocities to native Americans, but for the courage and skills it took to face the unknown. Enhance and expand the holiday by providing more complete information without pitting groups against each other. Celebrate our history, the history of North America including the Vikings, Johh Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, and others. After all, even George Washington owned slaves. Yet he is still revered. By the way, Columbus never even came to what we now call the United States and Cabot's part of North America is much closer to Michigan!

Richard E Colony
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 6:16am

There is no reason the same day can't be recognized for both or as Christopher stated make the Friday before or make
another Monday the suggested day. Don't eliminate the history of this country.

ANtonio Rafael
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 12:32am

I wrote the resolution to remove convert Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in Detroit. I personally put an axe in Columbus' head as an art project... I appreciate a growing awareness about native history... But we should honor native peoples in our stories, yes, but also in our deeds. We cannot continue to allow oil to flow throw mackinaw and to clear cut forests while saying we honor them... We can't say we honor them while we frack up our land... Honoring nominally and honoring them in deed are two different things. I want to see both happen.

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 5:22am

"I personally put an axe in Columbus' head as an art project..."

"...we should honor native peoples in our stories, yes, but also in our deeds."

So putting an axe through an image of Columbus for an art project is a "deed" worthy of honoring Native American heritage?

Julie Dye
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 1:24am

As an actual enrolled Michigan Indigenous Native, I say stop glorifying Columbus who was delivered to Spain in chains after his atrocities were reported to Spanish settlers. Find another Italian hero. The truth has been exposed. When you know better, you do better.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 9:58am

Rep. Irwin is correct in making the connection between Columbus Day and the myth that Europeans 'discovered' and 'civilized' the Americas while the reality is that the ancestors of us white people decimated and subjugated their indigenous people. Our culture has been imposed on the survivors by force just as we chose the rules by which we expropriated the land and resources upon which their way of life depended.
The original Columbus Day was actually proclaimed by President Benjamin Harrison backin the 19th century. Just as that Columbus Day was crucial to elevating Italian Americans to the status of 'white' people in the opinion of we WASPS, an Indigenous People's Day would elevate our awareness of the history and culture of the indigenous people who are really our involuntary hosts.

Lee Owen
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 10:12am

Columbus Day should be honored for the first person who came to the Americas and returned to Europe and let them know about the Americas.
Research shows me there were at least 10 different people groups that came to the Americas before Columbus. A separate day to honor them is fine, but not replacing what Columbus did.
I am not saying what happened hundreds of years ago was right. The world had different values and back then. We should not judge people hundreds of years ago with today’s values.
Remember it wasn’t that long ago the concept of the world being flat, drawing blood from people would heal them and man would never fly were the accepted norms.
Times change, beliefs change but history we need to learn from and not discard just because it’s political correct.

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 3:03pm

Lee, you are right on with your comments! Totally agree. History DOES have room for everyone to be recognized.

Dirk Bloemendaal
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 4:57pm

How about we start with renaming the Eastern Michigan Eagles back to the Hurons? Now that would be a solid step forward.

Fri, 10/18/2019 - 6:14pm

Perhaps a statue of someone we should emulate, like Nathan Phillips. Settlers, well we should erase their history entirely, which is precisely what you are trying to do. Control the past, so you can control the future. What did settlers ever do for Michigan anyway?

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 9:57am

Displaced the native populace with violence and disease, and destroyed large swaths of the environment for the profit of a handful of people?

Vince Caruso
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 10:24pm

Thanks, Senator Irwin. I agree with your legislation, thanks for sponsoring it.
Next, we need to make sure Indigenous Peoples get reparations for their losses like some other countries have done.

Sat, 10/19/2019 - 8:49pm

If the good Senator for Ann Arbor is so sensitive to the actions of Columbus in the 15th century, why does he not mention the actions of the indigenous populations in the 15th Century and their actions in the intervening years?
Why doesn't he mention the attacks by tribes on other tribes, the enslavement of those children and woman from the defeated tribes, the means/methods practiced of those captured in the fighting, the way they harvested the animals for their furs and as food, how and all the other practices the Senator finds disdainful today?
Why don't we hear about the cost such a holiday will create for the taxpayers of Michigan and private employers? Why doesn't the Senator give the whole of the picture, why doesn't he talk about potential unintended consequence of such a change? Does the good Senator ever consider what may happen from perspectives other than his own, or does he only think of what he wants to happen from laws he and his peers are so quick to propose?

I am glad to hear how many people want to honor their ideals of the past, but the reality is that the times were harsh, life was difficult and is so detached from the abundance we have today that it would be better to be looking ahead and doing things that are looking for how holidays can help people prepare for the future.
What I learned from the lessons about Columbus Day, were how risky life was, how uninformed they were and how that lack of knowledge contributed delusions about what was and wasn't reality,

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 9:58am

Love to compare small scale tribal conflict to the rape and genocide of an entire continent...

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 10:04pm

You remind of Johnson and McNamara touting body counts, if it wasn't a big number it didn't matter. You need a big body count to care about atrocities, you need single events with big numbers for it to matter. I learned about prejudice, bigotry one incident at a time. I learned a person responding to an incident and another person responding to another incident and so on can make a culture change and it is the culture whether in small groups spread across a big land that influences people and how they treat others.
It is a small thinker that needs a big headline to get their attention. It is the person that sees the individual act and responds that will change the culture.
To say it was only atrocities done in small group so it doesn't matter, ignores that across the land there were many similar small groups doing it to each other and that made it a culture of those actions. To ignore an inconvenient 'truth' is to deny it happened, to give tacit approval of such activities and culture. To me what was happening was the context of the times, so I don't judge by today's culture [the indigenous people's or those that came from elsewhere, for I believe if people are to be judged in needs to be done in context.

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/22/2019 - 8:49pm

If your "perception" is true for Native Americans, shouldn't it have been even more true for moral Christian Americans or Europeans? And would you like to compare what you "perceive" about Native Americans compared to what white Europeans history is? I don't believe you could look up any history of a genocidal continental diaspora that Natives ever did here. But white Europeans did. Come on. History. It's not perception but it is written by the winners of wars, And it is all White Europeans.

That feeling you are feeling whenever you try to talk to me?

Cognitive dissonance
In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person's belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person.Wikipedia

That is why you rely on "perception". You have nothing else. You literally deny all other evidence. It doesn't exist for you. That is why you rely on "perception".

I noticed you didn't reply to my last post on tiny houses.

Answer those questions. They literally are the only ones that need to have an answer. It isn't until you pose questions to conservatives in a way they personally would be effected, then cognitive dissonance kicks in. Because then they have to take into account their own feelings. And that is the only thing they care about.

Then again, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/opinion/florida-republicans-impeachme...

[[One man who struck up a conversation with the writer apologized right away for his poor dental health, which he couldn’t afford to improve, but said he’d rather do without health care than pay for someone he didn’t think deserved it.

“I’d rather take care of my own self with tape than be stuck in a system where I pay for everyone else,” the man told Cunha.]]

And if this person is in that kind of position? He's not paying for anyone else's healthcare, he would receive a subsidy to help him pay his bills. But he is willing to suffer so that others have to too.

This is the "perception" problem we have. Trickle down isn't working. The wealthy who get tax breaks aren't helping or donating to charitable causes and the conservatives that say they will by donating to those same causes? NOPE.

Actions! Not words or "perceptions"! Why should anyone trust you when you flatly state that anyone other than you should donate to those causes? Don't believe me! Go to the article about welfare reform in Michigan. Read the comments from conservatives. You can call me biased all you want. I am just believing what the conservatives are saying. Are you?

Because those are their actions and they are set in STONE in the legislature of the State of Michigan and under your watch!

Are YOU willing to take responsibility?

After the actions are taken, there is NO "perception". Be careful of the path you are treading on.

This Duane, is why "perception" should NEVER be allowed into law.

Wed, 10/23/2019 - 1:27am

Are you saying that you hold one group to a high stand than another though that are in the same place in history? Why, do you think the context is different? Do you think the medical care, food supplies, clothing were that much different? Do think the water supply and the sanitary conditions were that much different? Do you think how they survived or even how they fought their battle were that much different? Do you think those who promoted religion were that much different? What was the difference that makes you believe that one group should have lived by today's moral standards where the other shouldn't have? Is it you have simply bought into someone spin don't want to believe that indigenous people could be and were violent, do you believe that in south east Asia was violent and somehow those in north America weren't, that Europe shouldn't have been violent because you make have some link to it? People are people and the context of the times allows them or contributes to how they act and live. When live it short and is focused on survival it does what is available to survive.

The weakness of you psychology is it fails to consider the individual and relies on the consolidation of information/experiences. Consider the individual who at a relatively young age confronts the frailty of life [their life] multiple times in a brief period and yet survives and plans a long and successful life. They hold to conflict ideas, ones own death and ones long life, how do they physiologically survive based on your analysis? A person can believe in science and the discipline of facts and yet accept gravity which has no explanation except that it is. Its like a person being a scientist and yet believing in magic? Do you, so why can't others?

I have not seen your comments on tiny house [have I missed others], where should I be looking?

It does should like you are accepting perceptions are important and they do impact how people act and react. That may not make them 'facts', but it would make them something that needs to be considered and address. If you have to address a person's perceptions does that suggest it is 'fact' to them? I don't care. It is much like describing an old joke I heard used about a mathematician, a physicists, and engineer, some burning drapes and a bucket of water. I just have to act to address it.

Why should I care what some 'conservatives' say, do think they or you need to defend them. I only take responsibility for what I say and do, others are responsible for themselves. As for that article, the decision has been made so all the conversation is about the minutia of application [more or less of other people's money without care of the value provided].

Laws are always about perceptions, generally about what people perceive others need or how others should live and why it should be other people providing it. Can you think of a law that was based on success, and shares how others achieved that success? Who can't identify a law that is based on disappointment of results for an individual.

middle of the mit
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 3:44am

Yes. I do hold people who believe they are more moral to a higher standard. Shouldn't you? I also hold those in Government positions to a higher standard. Isn't that how society works?

You still can't prove that Native Americans started the wars can you? Of course not. They lost. And yet we got to write history.

It literally means nothing what the times were like. We invaded a country that we didn't have control over. Then, we took it over and made it our own. Will you allow that fact? No. You won't. You will tell me, even though it will be in history books until the end of time, that it was a just a moment in time, and you had to take the circumstances of the time into effect. What if a hoard of homeless people took over your neighborhood? Would you allow it? It's literally only a moment in time that effects you personally. Even if it only lasts a few years or a decade, unlike 100 or more years. At some point in time Duane, you are going have to put yourself in someone else's shoes. I literally don't think you can do that. And this is all AFTER the natives helped the colonists SURVIVE their first years here. And then we drove them west.

History, facts, things that allowed you to be what you are and now you want to deny them and obfuscate them away. I wonder why?

[[What was the difference that makes you believe that one group should have lived by today's moral standards where the other shouldn't have? Is it you have simply bought into someone spin don't want to believe that indigenous people could be and were violent, do you believe that in south east Asia was violent and somehow those in north America weren't, that Europe shouldn't have been violent because you make have some link to it?]]

It's not today's morality. The King James Bible was published in 1611. Two years after Jamestown Virginia Settlement and about 9 years before the Pilgrims landed. And most conservatives still use that Bible as the end all be all. Has anything changed? Careful, you might be out of your realm.

But then you qualified it. People do what they need to survive. Should it be any less today? Careful. Like you said, it's only a matter of "perception" on who or what poses a threat. And since an armed society is a polite society....yet somehow, people just keep getting shot even though they pose no threat.

My psychology? NO, I said you were experiencing cognitive dissonance. That is when you experience or "perceive" knowledge or facts that you don't believe in. And yet you still "perceive" cannabis as more of a threat than alcohol, DESPITE the proof in front of your eyes in your local paper or any paper at all.

[[ Consider the individual who at a relatively young age confronts the frailty of life [their life] multiple times in a brief period and yet survives and plans a long and successful life]] They are young and healthy, they just worry too much like you. Most conservatives would call them Hypochondriacs.

HERE THIS BRIDGE!! DUANE A SCIENTIST SAYS THAT GRAVITY HAS NO EXPLANATION! [[A person can believe in science and the discipline of facts and yet accept gravity which has no explanation except that it is.]]

And Bill O'Rielly said that the tides go in and the tides go out. No one knows why! Alternative facts! (Kelly Ann CONway) "Truth? Who knows what truth is?" (Rudy Giuliani, individual 1's personal lawyer, not the one in jail) and "what you are you seeing..and what you are hearing.. is not what is happening." (President Donald J Trump)

[[ Its like a person being a scientist and yet believing in magic? Do you, so why can't others?]] You believe in magic? I believe in illusion. And that is what you are trying to do. Or is it Elude?

[[Laws are always about perceptions, generally about what people perceive others need or how others should live and why it should be other people providing it. Can you think of a law that was based on success, and shares how others achieved that success? Who can't identify a law that is based on disappointment of results for an individual.]]

I think I just proved YOU just proved why "perception" should never be law.'



Fri, 10/25/2019 - 4:12pm

Since I see us as human beings and not as a caste system where we expect more of one type and less of another, I believe we should find what are the contributing factor [understanding, culture, environment, context] before condemning them or letting them get a pass for what they have done.

I was not there during the period we are talking about so I have to rely on others that have research the time and relics. You are the first person I have heard claim that indigenous [tribes, clans] populations didn’t fight amongst themselves before western Europeans enter an area.

I don’t understand where you get this ‘we’ did this or that, I have already said I wasn’t there so why should I be blamed for what was done so long ago. Personally I don’t take credit or blame anything my Father or Mother did or any their ancestors, so why are you blaming anyone today for what happened several hundred years ago?
As for the ‘homeless’ taking over neighborhoods, that seems to be what is happening in LA and is being encouraged by the elected officials, that should answer your question about resistance. And that proves you should be considering the context of the times. Similarly, historically the ‘spoils’ belonged to the ‘victors’, when was the last time win or loss America didn’t financially help out those they were fighting against and when did America receive any reparation for being attacked, even when they won a battle or a war? As side from the direct victims of an attack when has anyone been awarded reparation?

It is surprising that you so disrespect my life and experiences that you believe by only suffering what others personally suffer I cannot have any understand, any empathy, any sympathy. You seem to believe that life isn’t fair and I don’t get, describe what life should be and how it isn’t fair then we can talk. A could of points I remember the first time I saw racial discrimination, it was to a friend on the elementary school playground, I still recall being told I was ‘poor’ because of where I lived and dressed [elementary school by an adult], I haven’t forgotten how people encircled me verbally lashed out at me with comments meant to humiliate me and invalidate me as a person, I remember sitting on the ground with a dying friend [he die there] from a violent attack by another, not too long ago sat in a meeting at a local charitable organization trying to find ways to gain more support and had to listen berating those who has a political approach akin to mine [a bit more blunt that your comments], so don’t tell me what I need to do, need to experience to grasp what you want me to say and believe. What is disappointing is how little you can or consider what other truly believe and why they believe it, and why their lives don’t matter. One of the lessons I have found is that if you only look for one thing that is all you will see. An example is that if you only look for the flaws in people, in their live/experiences you will find them everywhere and you will believe that is all that matters. A supposed up beat spin on that approach is you learn from your mistakes. That is wasteful because it drives people to only look for mistakes so they have something to learn from. I learned to look for success, I want to find why is good in people and the things they do because I want to see success repeated and not forgotten. Which is better bemoan the suffering of one group and ignore how another group prospered. I believe It is better to study the successes, learning from those successes and sharing those lessons with others. The reality is that failure can be on small miss-step while success is most commonly a series of activities. You berate me over the suffering of the indigenous in Michigan several hundred years ago and you fail to identify what truly cause the western Europeans to dominate. War did defeat the indigenous in America it was the stuff they built their life on, it was the tools and trinkets that they brought with them the locals didn’t have but were willing to change to get, it was the persistence to suffer keep coming, it was simply attrition. Who are you going to rail at when the majority of people in Michigan/America aren’t the ‘WASPs’ [declining birth rate, attrition]?

You don’t even try to think for yourself, you have to turn to others, you don’t mention anything you have chosen for yourself. I have learned many lesson in my life, albeit you do seem to believe that other can do that, I have one about nor purposely harming those who can’t protect themselves, I have it to be respectful of others and the choices they make when it does infringe on the rights of others, I defer to the laws of my government , and such. What are some of yours?
As for the religion, I believe that they were established by men to promote a belief, they are maintained by men/women to promote their beliefs. The Bible was written overtime based on the verbal history in the context of that time. I do believe in God and Christ his son and my gate way to belief. I believe God gave us free will, the choice to believe or not, and that freedom of choice is the foundation of our country and our Constitution. I have no idea why we are here for that is God’s will. I have no clue to the meaning of life, so we should do with it and enjoy it while we are here. I really do care about your distain for the bible, a point of information that has been a new English translation [New Testament 1961, Old Testament 1970].
Armed or unarmed society has always had violence; it is about the acceptability and individual’s inclination. So we will have violence as long as there are people.
My example was not about conjured fality it was about watching those around them die and regonizing there was no reason they didn’t die, consider those guys in the middle east and they saw buddies die from IED and the next day he finds he is standing to an IED, fragility of life is up close and personal. Now that person plans and lives a long and healthy life, that is holding two conflict realities at the same time and not having a psychosis a healthy reality.
Go smoke you ‘joint’ just please don’t do just before you operate ‘heavy equipment’.

Back to gravity, gravity is measurable, it is real, but why does it exist? We understand light, sound, heat, they are all generated by the release of energy from molecules [my high school science], what I have yet hear explained is what creates gravity, why does it exist. We know the size of a mass will change its magnitude, but not how that mass creates it. If we can explain it we can create it, it seems like something conjured out of nothing or magic.

I thought the point was about how perceptions were used not whether they should or shouldn’t be use in that manner. You were saying you were dealing in ‘truths’ and I was saying they are perceptions, and was reinforcing the point by talking about how they were a key factor in our laws.

Pam L
Tue, 10/22/2019 - 11:50pm

While honoring our Native Indiana's history is a great idea, why not give them their own day, instead of taking over Columbus Day? We can teach about how history was made from flawed people who worked to make the world around them a better place. How yes, some mistakes were made, with good intentions, and we learned from those mistakes and got better.