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Madison Heights Votes to Replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day

Madison Heights Votes to Replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 12, 2020)

Madison Heights, MI- for Madison Heights Council Member Emily Rohrbach, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day is not just about re-framing an historical event, it’s about the respect due to people who are still an important part of American society.

“I understood from an early age that the lessons that were taught to me in schools and in popular culture about the origins of our country were 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 of the native people,” Rohrbach said as she introduced the proclamation at the Oct. 12 City Council meeting. “I’m looking at you, stupid head-dresses,” she said, referring to a craft many kids have made without understanding the sacred nature of the real thing.

The vote fell on the Federal Holiday, Columbus Day, but thanks to a unanimous vote by the council, city staff and council will now call the second Monday in October Indigenous People’s Day. Rohrbach, who has Ojibwa and Cherokee heritage, introduced the proclamation and three Indigenous members of the community joined her in sharing their stories and support.

Becky Hill, who is part of the Cayuga Nation, said “I’m proud of my city as it shifts the focus that celebrates colonialism to one that celebrates and acknowledges the resilience of Natives American and First Nation peoples. To take a day that is typically filled with half-truths or flat-out falsehoods and replace it with a focus on those who are indigenous to Turtle Island is a long overdue step forward.”

Deborah Jane Shephard shared a story of her family.  “At the end of the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador, he did not discover an uninhabited wasteland waiting for civilization. He arrived in a hemisphere full of highly developed peoples with commerce and innovation and culture. While his arrival was momentous, the resulting colonization and assimilation left the People all but forgotten in their own homeland and reduced in the minds of most to stereotypes and mascots.

At the beginning of the 20th century my own grandmother was one of the children separated from her family when she was eight years old, sent to live in a boarding school, to learn to speak English and to leave behind her Anishinaabek language and culture. Yet those efforts to erase the existence of the first people were not successful. Anishinaabe still live here in this place, contributing to the life and culture of Madison Heights, Michigan and the Great Lakes, as do the first people nations throughout this country,” she said. “I am standing in support of that designation because it is time, it is time to give ourselves and our children and grandchildren an opportunity for a full understanding of our mutual history, so we may be mindful of the first peoples of this land on which we stand and to teach our children to respect them and honor them.”

Nicole Fox, who is Cherokee, has lived in Madison Heights for 15 years. “Many people don’t understand the power of symbols. In our country there are numerous symbols that reflect what we value as a nation. There are symbols that assign honor to acts of violence… Symbols promote visibility and invisibility, and help to shape how we think, who belongs, who wins, who is worthy, and what is important… I ask everyone to question whose story is this telling, [and] whose story is missing?”

Some are critical of the movement to rename this day – which has had growing momentum since the 1990s – saying that it does not make sense to change the past. Yet Native Americans are not just a part of history, they are a part of today.

“The stories of the Anishnaabe people are not just stories of things and people who existed long ago – no. We are in fact, still here,” Rohrbach said. “We are children in schools, we are doctors and graphic designers and grocery store clerks and factory workers and city council members.

“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.

“This resolution today replaces “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous People’s Day” – not because we want to “change history” but rather, I would like our city to be part of the movement to be more accurate with the history of our nation… 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 America0) 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.”

Madison Heights joins governmental bodies across the nation in making the change. Locally, Ferndale approved the holiday in 2016, and Southfield did so in 2018.

The proclamation states:

WHEREAS, the City of Madison Heights recognizes the annexation of the Odawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi Indigenous Nations who have lived upon this land and values the progress our society has accomplished through Native American thought and culture; and WHEREAS, the City of Madison Heights recognizes the need honor the city’s Native American residents, Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes, state historic tribes and all Indigenous people who come from across the western hemisphere to live and work within Madison Heights; and WHEREAS, the City of Madison Heights understands that in order to help close the equity gap, government entities, organizations, and other public institutions must change their policies and practices to better reflect experiences of Native American peoples and uplift our country’s indigenous roots, history, and contributions; and WHEREAS, the idea of Indigenous People’s Day was first proposed in 1977 by a delegation of Native Nations to the United Nations – sponsored International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas; and WHEREAS, in 1990, representatives from 120 Indigenous Nations at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance unanimously passed a resolution to transform Columbus Day into an opportunity to educate the rest of the country about pre-existing indigenous cultures that have survived an often violent colonization process and continue to exist and thrive in present day America; and WHEREAS, In late September, Oakland County Board of Commissioners, resolved to make October 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day and many Michigan cities have already declared the second Monday in October Indigenous People’s Day including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Alpena, East Lansing and Ypsilanti, to honor the culture, heritage and contributions of Native Americans; and NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Madison Heights shall recognize Indigenous People’s Day, replacing Columbus Day, on the second Monday of October; and IT IS FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Madison Heights encourages 1.All public offices and businesses in the City to refer to the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day: and 2.City Council urges all schools, school districts and children’s educational programs in Madison Heights to join in the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day with appropriate social, cultural and educational activities recognizing the historical and continuing contributions of Native American people to our society.

For more communities that have made the change, as well as history about the holiday, visit

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