BEMIDJI -- A push for an event recognizing American Indians around Columbus Day has stalled in Bemidji as other Minnesota cities discuss revising their approach to a federal holiday some consider problematic.
City Manager John Chattin serves as treasurer for Shared Vision, a local race relations board. Earlier this year, board members put forward the idea of changing the name "Columbus Day," which is Monday, to something honoring American Indians. Later, that idea evolved into honoring American Indians at an event separate from the holiday itself, since only the federal government can change the name. However, Shared Vision voted to put aside the Columbus Day issue at a recent meeting, Chattin said.
"We just don't have the resources at the moment to pull it off," he said. "Shared Vision as an organization has struggled for the last couple years. We're just hanging in there until we can get enough participation on the board to get some projects done."
The Columbus Day idea isn't dead, however.
"It's not forgotten, but it is tabled for the time being," Chattin said.
Chattin said he planned to resign as treasurer of Shared Vision soon. Chattin also plans to retire as city manager at the end of the year.
Michael Meuers, another Shared Vision member, said the Columbus Day initiative is simply waiting for the right champion to come along.
"Somebody who can grab this thing.... and run with this," he said. "It's going to need to collaboration between the schools, historical societies and others that are involved... the idea would be education, and creating opportunities for different cultures to get together."
A similar discussion among Brainerd's City Council resulted in a tabling of the issue there as well. However, the cities of Minneapolis and Red Wing have both changed the name at the local level to something honoring American Indians. The idea is spreading beyond Minnesota, too: on Oct. 6, city leaders in Seattle also voted to change the holiday. However, the move drew criticism from Seattle's Italian-American community, news agency Reuters reported.
"Italians are intensely offended," Seattle resident Lisa Marchese told the City Council. "For decades, Italian-Americans celebrated not the man, but the symbol of Columbus Day. That symbol means we honor the legacy of our ancestors who immigrated to Seattle, overcame poverty, a language barrier, and above all, discrimination."
However, the argument for changing the name centers around the link between the holiday and Columbus' legacy. Honoring him as the man who "discovered" America is perceived as paying short shrift to the millions of American Indians who lived here for generations before his arrival. Symbolism aside, there's also a more literal aspect: the acts of aggression on the part of Columbus' expeditions.
Anton Treuer, director of BSU's American Indian Resource Center, said the full extent of atrocities committed by Columbus remains widely unacknowledged.
On Columbus's first voyage to the New World, Columbus kidnapped indigenous people to bring them back as proof of what he had discovered, Treuer said. When Columbus embarked on the return trip to Europe, he left behind a small detachment of his men in what is now Haiti. The detachment press-ganged local Indians there into servitude in order to gather food and sexually service the explorers, Treuer said.
"They conscripted and enslaved native people for food, women and boys for purposes of sexual gratification," Treuer said. "Eventually, the 2 million Indians living on the island got sick of the 19 Spaniards being that way and killed them all."
When Columbus returned to the islands, a tribute system was instituted whereby the natives were forced to bring gold to the Spaniards or be maimed as punishment.
"Those who refused to bring gold would have their hands chopped off," he said. "On Columbus' second voyage, they cut the hands off 30,000 native people for failing to bring sufficient quantities of gold."
Columbus himself documented his actions toward the natives he encountered, Treuer said.
"Columbus wrote lots of letters, he kept journals... so all of this history is extremely well documented," he said. "Columbus kept no secrets about how he treated people. He didn't think there was anything wrong with slavery or killing Indians. That was just his belief system, so it wasn't something that was hidden or disguised."
Although descriptions of the incidents were readily available for centuries, Americans were given a retelling of events that celebrated Columbus as the man who discovered America, Treuer said.
"That version of the story is completely revisionist," he said. "If somebody told that version to Christopher Columbus, he'd laugh 'That guy's an idiot, put him in the ranks of the slaves.' But that's what we teach."