Madison Heights replaces Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 22, 2020


MADISON HEIGHTS — The mayor and council of Madison Heights unanimously approved a resolution earlier this month ending the city’s observation of Columbus Day, and instead observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which honors the history of the native people who first lived in this country.

Columbus Day, which honors the explorer Christopher Columbus, is traditionally recognized the second Monday of October. Indigenous Peoples’ Day will now be recognized on that date in Madison Heights. In its resolution Oct. 12, the council urges local school districts to do the same.  

Oakland County and cities such as Detroit, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Alpena, East Lansing and Ypsilanti have also moved to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  

The city’s resolution pays tribute to the contributions of the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi nations who lived in America prior to settlers from Western Europe, and acknowledges the violent colonization process that they endured. The resolution also honors the city’s Native American residents, the state’s 12 federally recognized tribes, and others with native roots.

The resolution states there is an equity gap that can only be closed by government entities, organizations and other public institutions changing their policies and practices to raise awareness for the history and contributions of Native Americans.

‘Our kids … deserve the truth’
Nickole Fox, a 15-year resident of Madison Heights, is of Cherokee descent. She and her husband are raising two daughters. She explained the resolution’s significance during the City Council meeting Oct. 12 on Zoom.

“I’m so proud today that the City of Progress is taking this step to recognize the first people of this land. … Indigenous people have too long been made invisible,” Fox said. “We should be telling the whole story, and telling it from multiple perspectives. The perspectives we hold as a nation impact how we think, how policymakers think, how teachers think. Perspectives impact … the policies that directly impact indigenous people, and that impact the sovereign nations within the borders of the United States.”

She noted there are 574 federally recognized Native American nations in the U.S., as well as state-recognized tribes. There are also more than 150 indigenous languages. Fox pondered what percentage of Americans know this.

“All of our kids, regardless of our background, deserve the truth,” Fox said, adding that she hopes school curriculums will follow suit in raising awareness for indigenous people.

Becky Hill, a Madison Heights resident and descendant of Cayuga Nation, is a mother of four with two children in elementary school and two in preschool. She also spoke at the meeting.

“I’m proud of my city as it shifts the focus from a day that celebrates colonialism to one that celebrates and acknowledges the resiliency of Native American and First Nations people,” Hill said. “To take a day that is typically filled with half-truths and flat-out falsehoods, and replace it with a focus on those who are indigenous to Turtle Island” — a name for North America or Earth used by some native people — “is a long overdue step forward. It is my hope that not only will this change occur, but that in the future our city will have a significant increase in community events on this day, as well as Native American History Month (in November).”

Historical accuracy
The resolution was proposed by Madison Heights City Councilwoman Emily Rohrbach, who is of both Ojibwa and Cherokee descent.

“I’ve wanted to address the issue of Columbus Day since I first learned about my ancestors’ experiences on the Trail of Tears and Indian boarding schools — I think I was 8 or 9 years old when I first considered the unjust nature of the Columbus Day holiday,” Rohrbach said after the meeting.

“I had been considering how to approach it as a council member and I was contacted by resident Nickole Fox asking for me to make the proposal this year,” she said. “It boils down to this: symbols and representation matter, and it is my hope that Madison Heights will be an example of inclusion and equity for all.”

Rohrbach emphasized that the goal is not to “change history,” but rather to tell the history of the country more accurately. She also said that telling history more accurately does not mean she is condemning the U.S.

“I am a person of faith,” Rohrbach said. “My faith has taught me that we love our neighbors. We don’t love our neighbors only if they are perfect. No, we love despite all the flaws and imperfections of every person. For me, this is similar to how I feel about this country. I love the United States of America, but not because it is a perfect example of all things good. I love it despite its flaws. I love it, and so I work to make it better, even in little ways.”

During the meeting, Rohrbach said historical depictions of indigenous people have been deeply flawed.

“I was often frustrated when the only mention of Native Americans in our history books was when it tracked with the European colonization of this land, lumped all indigenous people into a single group of ‘savages’ that needed civilizing, or was tied to a legend about the Thanksgiving holiday — and were often followed up with crafts and activities that demeaned and cheapened the sacred traditions and dress of the native people,” Rohrbach said.

She noted that many indigenous people of Michigan consider themselves Anishinaabe, a group that includes the Odawa, Ojibwa and Potowatami. She said they have been here for millennia, with their own rich culture, sacred traditions and complex language.

“Many colonizers and settlers owe their very survival to the kindness and teachings of the First Nations people,” Rohrbach said. “And the stories of the Anishinaabe people are not just stories of things and people who existed long ago — no. We are, in fact, still here. … We are the original people of this land, and the myth of ‘discovery’ of the Americas has lingered far too long without challenge. Indigenous people have for too long been told to ‘get over it’ and forget about the genocide of our people, to get over it and smile and nod when our sacred traditions are cheapened and used as Halloween costumes and mascots or jokes.

“Instead of spending the day in reverence for a man who stumbled his way to the Caribbean, and never actually stepped foot in mainland North America, and proceeded to enact a genocide on the people of the Caribbean and Central America — only to be mostly forgotten about in his own time, and only later resurrected by a novelist in the 1800s as some kind of ‘hero’ — instead of that, let’s use today to celebrate the deep, diverse and enduring legacy of the indigenous people of this land,’ Rohrbach concluded.