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Inaccurate, controversial history of Columbus leads to alternative celebrations in North Dakota

Damian Webster after singing "Esganya" or "Women's Shuffle" during the North Dakota First Nations Day celebration on Friday, Oct 13, 2014, at the UND American Indian Center in Grand Forks, N.D. Webster says the song is a ceremonial and social celebration, and has ties to the story of creation. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Updated at 12:37 AM, 10/14/2014

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” is culturally engrained in the American psyche as part of the concept of Christopher Columbus discovering America.

However, the celebration of Columbus Day — a national holiday since 1937 — as a celebration of the discovery of North America is far from accurate.

“Columbus Day is not actually a celebration of the discovery of North America because Columbus never discovered North America,” said Sebastian Braun, chair of the Indian Studies Department at UND.

To the chagrin of much American tradition, Braun is right. Columbus actually never stepped foot on the North American continent, let alone the U.S. And everywhere he did “discover” in the New World was already inhabited by Native peoples.

Historical misconceptions aside, Columbus Day is also controversial due to the impact Columbus and his explorers had on Native peoples.

“The atrocities that Columbus did to American Indians — killing thousands, making slaves out of them — it just doesn’t sit well with the American Indian community,” said Leigh Jeanotte, director of American Indian Services at UND.

Classifying Columbus

Due to many misconceptions about Columbus and Columbus Day, UND’s Indian Studies Department fits Columbus into the curriculum in a more historically accurate way.

“We don’t necessarily talk about Columbus Day,” Braun said. “We talk about Columbus and the complexity and the history that Columbus in fact did not discover North America. Mostly, we talk about the larger issues of what happened as Europeans settled in North America and the consequences of that.”

As far as the holiday is concerned, it originally came about as a way for Italian Americans to celebrate their heritage during a time when they were still being discriminated against in the U.S. in the late 19th century. However, as Italian Americans began to blend into the general white population in the U.S., the holiday became a more national event, and the focus shifted.

“The irony is that this holiday that started out as a celebration of a significant ethnic heritage against some kind of discrimination has become something that another ethnic group finds oppressive to them,” Braun said.

With this in mind, some towns and groups have tried to find ways to reconsider Columbus by either renaming the holiday or creating a celebration that recognizes Native Americans. This year, the Brainerd, Minn., city council proposed (but eventually tabled) a motion to replace Columbus Day with Chief Red Wing Day, and Minneapolis designated Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day.

Russ McDonald, former tribal chairman of the Spirit Lake Tribal Council, said alternative names are preferred by the tribe. He said the tribe would prefer a name like “Native Peoples Day” compared to Columbus Day.

While some towns have chosen to rename the holiday, many groups and organizations have taken to celebrating alternative holidays instead.

Alternate ceremonies

In 2011, Gov. Jack Dalrymple proclaimed Oct. 7 of that year as First Nations Day to “recognize North Dakota’s indigenous peoples and their unique role in shaping the history and culture of this state, as well as the history and culture of this nation,” according to his signed proclamation.

Since then, First Nations Day has persisted for groups to celebrate with their own ceremonies a few days before Columbus Day.

This year, it fell on Oct. 10, and UND’s American Indian Student Services hosted a First Nations ceremony at a fully packed American Indian Center on campus.

“North Dakota has gone on record to celebrate the First Nations in North Dakota, and I think that’s really great,” Jeanotte said in his opening remarks.

The event featured traditional storytelling, Native American songs, reflections from Native American students and a traditional meal of wild rice soup and bannock.

Damian Webster, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and is of the Seneca Nation, opened the event with two traditional songs and spoke about the importance of maintaining cultural identity for Native people.

He emphasized how “Seneca” was the English word given to his people, but that he preferred to use the tribe’s own traditional name, “Onondowahgah,” because it was their own name.

“I’ll take the name over the one a lost sailor gave us a long time ago,” Webster said. “It’s important to be proud of who we are. We have a duty to carry on what our ancestors brought to us.”

A previous version of this story stated the Columbus Day had it's origins in the U.S in the late 18th century. The article reflects the updated information. 

Call Richie at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1134; or send email to grichie@gfherald.com.

Garrett Richie
Garrett Richie is a general assignment reporter and digital writer for The Grand Forks Herald. Richie is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is formerly of The Ludington Daily News in Ludington, Mich. Have a good story idea? Contact Richie by either phone or email, both of which are listed below. If you would like to comment on a story, send a letter to the editor with Richie's name and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words, and all letters are subject to editing. Email to letters@gfherald.com or mail to The Grand Forks Herald.
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