Spokane may become the latest city to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day.
The City Council will vote Monday on a resolution declaring the second Monday in October “an opportunity to celebrate the thriving cultures and values of the American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Indigenous Peoples of our region.” Seattle adopted a similar resolution in 2014, and other cities, including Denver and Minneapolis, have done the same in recent years.
Council President Ben Stuckart, who put forth the resolution, said it was driven by conversations with Jo Ann Kauffman, a Nez Perce tribal member who runs a professional services firm. He said Columbus, who enslaved indigenous people on the island of Hispaniola, where he landed in 1492, should not be celebrated.
“I don’t think that that’s somebody we should be honoring,” he said.
City parking meters are free on Columbus Day, but the day is not a holiday for city employees. Veterans Day and Presidents Day are also regular working holidays for city employees.
Kauffman said she appreciated Spokane taking a step toward celebrating a more accurate history of early European contact with the Americas.
“It’s an opportunity for reconciliation and honest appraisal and celebration of indigenous peoples,” she said.
The city named a plaza overlooking Lower Spokane Falls the Spokane Tribal Gathering Place in 2014, with an inscription in Salish saying “the place where salmon is prepared.” Stuckart said he wants to build on efforts like that to include native people in Spokane life.
“We have one of the largest percentage of urban Indian populations in the United States,” he said. “It’s very important to me that we continue to improve those relations and this is one of those steps.”
Councilman Breean Beggs said he’d support the resolution, which doesn’t say anything negative about Columbus or his legacy as similar measures in other cities have.
“This resolution doesn’t do that. This resolution is simply a positive resolution honoring Native American people,” he said.
Though Mayor David Condon doesn’t have to sign council resolutions, his spokesman Brian Coddington said Condon supports the effort as well.
But Councilman Mike Fagan, the lone conservative on the council, called the measure “political correctness pandering to special interests” and said he plans to vote no.
“Five hundred twenty-four years of what we all thought was good history is about ready to be wiped out by the council president who is running for mayor,” he said.
He said the council had more important issues facing it and was concerned about the message it would send to Spokane’s newest sister city, Cagli, Italy.
“How is this going to be perceived when we sit down the latter part of September to ink the sister city agreement?” he said.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm said she was open to the resolution but would not make up her mind before hearing public testimony.
Other council members did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The change speaks to two competing visions of who Christopher Columbus was and what role he played in the history of the Americas. Historians agree that by the early 1500s, much of the native Taino population on Hispaniola had died off from a combination of diseases imported by Europeans, fighting with Spanish colonizers and overwork. Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, an early Spanish settler of the Americas, wrote detailed accounts of the early years of colonization which described Spaniards cutting off indigenous peoples’ hands or killing them at will.
For Native Americans, Columbus was the catalyst for a genocide that led to the enslavement and death of millions of native people.
“Reading his journal, you see where rape and enslavement, executions, torture were all used by Christopher Columbus and those who followed him to exploit to the maximum possible any resources,” Kauffman said.
Italian-American cultural groups have fought measures to abandon Columbus Day in other cities, arguing that Columbus is being unfairly judged by modern standards and held responsible for the deaths of large numbers of indigenous people from smallpox and other European diseases.
Ron Anselmo, president of the Spokane chapter of the American Italian Club, found out about the resolution from a Spokesman-Review reporter and said he was surprised he hadn’t heard about it earlier.
“I don’t know what we can do about that but we’re going to fight it,” he said.
Tony Bisceglia Anderson, the president of the northwest chapter of Sons of Italy, said he’d try to make it to Spokane on Monday to testify against the proposal. He also said claims about Columbus’ role in the genocide against indigenous people in the Americas couldn’t be proven definitively.
“None of us were there. None of us really know what the truth is,” he said. Anderson unsuccessfully fought Seattle’s effort to pass a similar resolution.
A Spokane Tribe spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment Thursday, but some members of the tribe posted in support of the effort on Stuckart’s Facebook page.
“We’ll be there to support the resolution on the 29th! A long time coming! Thank you for your help,” wrote Twa-le Abrahmson-Swan, a member of the tribe.
The council will consider the resolution at its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in the Spokane City Hall council chambers.