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Bloomington To Study Indigenous Peoples Swap For Columbus Day

A statue of Columbus
Tim Shelley
"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is not such a popular children's song for some Bloomington City Council members.

Bloomington city staff will examine converting the Columbus Day holiday to one honoring indigenous people, with a majority of the city council indicating at least some support for researching the question during a Committee of the Whole session Monday night.

Council member Jenn Carrillo promoted the idea, using similar language to an earlier proposal to consider a Juneteenth holiday.

Last fall, the Bloomington council passed a proclamation honoring Indigenous Peoples Day. Carrillo said she wants to go further, and recent events related to social justice make such action more urgent.

"Over the last four years especially, we have seen a significant increase ... explicitly in white supremacist organizing and activities both in our community and the country," Carrillo said during the virtual meeting. "Also as a society, I think we have started to connect the dots about the ways that white supremacy shows up in the most explicit ways and also in more covert ways." 

Carrillo said those examples include monuments, statues, landmarks named for certain people, and holidays celebrated.

Not everyone supported Carrillo. Council member Donna Boelen for one.

“I believe that cancel culture removes the opportunity for dialogue and to study world history," said Boelen. "Actually if you study history, Columbus Day is an Italian-American holiday, so what I see being suggested is a substitution of one culture for another.” 

Another council member saw more nuance than strictly substitution.

Julie Emig said it's not "usurping." She said canceling Columbus Day is not dismissing Italian-Americans, just removing an honor from someone who created a lot of harm to native Americans. Emig said there was also a political purpose to the original Columbus Day holiday that may no longer be relevant.

"It actually seemed to be more about Italians trying to regain status and recognition in a country that was very oppressive of them at the time. So they grabbed onto what they perceived as an icon. He's Italian. People like him. So, they wanted to associate with him," said Emig

To council member Jeff Crabill, the current understanding of Columbus Day in the broadest sense -- celebrating European expansion into the western hemisphere -- is the real problem. For Crabill, honoring Columbus is a poor use of a colonialist symbol that resulted in the large-scale death by disease and military conquest of people living in north America before Europeans arrived.

"I think it's common knowledge that this day is celebrated as discovering America. In essence, it's all about what he did against indigenous people," said Crabill.

The idea of Columbus Day began in 1869 in California. Council member Joni Painter said it started as a response to the lynching of 11 Italian-Americans. Columbus Day did not become a federal holiday until 1937.

Painter said she's conflicted about a switch because the city can't undo the federal holiday status and government offices will remain closed and the mail won't be delivered.

"I don't necessarily think we should replace one with the other. I don't have a problem with Indigenous People's Day as we had last year. Just do what we did then in perpetuity. But I'm not in favor of replacing one with the other," said Painter.

Council member Scott Black said he doesn't have a strong opinion.

"In my view, right now, we're in the middle of a global pandemic and I think staff attention should be on that," said Black.

Council member Kim Bray also said she had other priorities.

Earllier, the council approved staff examination of a Juneteenth holiday, proposed by council member Mboka Mwilambwe, to recognize the emancipation of slaves.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.