Recently, students from Indian Community School converged on the state capitol to lobby legislators to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Initially started in the 1990’s, the day sprang from a movement began to counter the federal observance of Columbus Day. Most of us remember “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” from a poem intended to remind us that European explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.
Today, we know that version of history is incorrect. For centuries before any explorers ever arrived, people lived in what we know today as North America and Wisconsin. Indians or Native Americans had their own forms of government, farming and agricultural processes, education and natural medicines. It’s hard to “discover” something that already exists. We also, now, know that Columbus, never made it to America. During four separate trips that started with the one in 1492, Columbus landed on several Caribbean islands today known as the Bahamas.
Further, the evidence supports that Columbus could best be credited with initiating the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, Columbus’ diaries revealed he was a thief. Stealing anything of value, Columbus had to figure out how to pay for his travels. In all of his failed attempts to connect with traders and merchants, Columbus paid for some of his voyages with human lives. Abducting over 1,000 Indians from the island of Hispaniola, Columbus sent them to Spain and sold them as slaves in 1495. His ships eventually became slave ships with hundreds dying or being thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. Others were tortured, raped, and hunted for sport. All told, estimates are that one-third of the original Indian population was either killed or enslaved by Columbus and his men. Armed with this information, 4th graders from the school last year began to question the state’s celebration of Columbus Day.
After much thought, the students decided there ought to be a law to celebrate Native Americans and commemorate their shared history and culture. Working with their teacher, they started with local government. In 2016, these courageous students were successful in convincing Milwaukee County to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This year, as 5th graders, they are taking on the state! I am proud to say that Rep. David Bowen and I are the sponsors of legislation introduced to rename the special observance of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. As students spoke in the capitol about the rationale for such a change, I was reminded of a national effort years ago to get citizens engaged in the legislative process. The idea was simple. If the public believed they had a good suggestion for new laws, they were encouraged to send them to elected officials.
Politicians in several states collect suggestions that they take before their fellow lawmakers. Some suggestions have succeeded in becoming law. To date, several laws were actually passed, and hundreds introduced. Democracy works best when we all participate. So, like these students, if you have an idea for a law, call me and let’s get to work!