How Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan Speaks Up for Indigenous Peoples Day

The highest-ranking Native American woman elected to executive office in U.S. history reflects on Columbus Day
Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan
Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan

Courtesy State of Minnesota

In 2018, with Columbus Day just weeks away, a kindergarten teacher in the St. Louis Park public school district had an awkward question for Peggy Flanagan.

In a month or so, Flanagan would become the lieutenant governor of Minnesota and the highest-ranking Native American woman (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) elected to executive office in U.S. history. So, how do you broach the subject of Christopher Columbus with Flanagan’s young daughter in your classroom? More broadly, how, in light of this federal holiday the second Monday in October, do you introduce 5-year-olds to the controversial 15th-century Italian explorer credited with fathering the country?

“We were taught in school that Columbus discovered America—with, you know, the rhyme.” Flanagan recites, “‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ And then that’s where it stopped.”

No mention of what transpired after Columbus’ three ships came upon a Caribbean island instead of the new trade route to India he had hoped to find. Columbus would interrupt many thousands of years of indigenous civilization, inciting genocide via disease, warfare, and massacre.

The St. Louis Park teacher shared her lesson plan with Flanagan. Her curriculum fell in line with a different but simultaneous holiday known as Indigenous Peoples Day. Materials told of modern-day Native kids and their experiences as pow wow dancers. “That, to me, was the right way to go,” Flanagan says.

In 2019, at least 120 cities and municipalities plan to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. (For more about the holiday’s growth, read here about how Mankato got on board last year.)

“The biggest piece of resistance [to Indigenous Peoples Day] is just the miseducation of people who were taught something in school about Columbus and then, as they get older, hear a different story,” Flanagan says.

Indigenous Peoples Day has multiple missions. While it aims to re-educate folks about the racist and destructive side of Columbus’ legacy, it also raises a flag for the Native people who still live here. Across the state on the second weekend in October, cities and colleges have spotlighted Indigenous artists and performers, hosting Native luminaries like activist Winona LaDuke and author and Bemidji State University professor Anton Treuer.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan describes what representatives see when they enter the House of Chambers: "Directly over the dais is a carving of pioneers on one side and Native American people on the other ... And, so, every day, when the members go in to do their business, the images that they see are of Native people stuck in the past."
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan describes what representatives see when they enter the House Chambers: “…directly over the dais is a carving of pioneers on one side and Native American people on the other.”

Photo by Studiobaker/Flickr

The lieutenant governor remembers the need for such reaffirmation—“to celebrate the fact that Native American people are still here and that we exist within a contemporary context”—going about her work on the Capitol grounds.

“When you walk into the House of Chambers, directly over the dais is a carving of pioneers on one side and Native American people on the other,” she notes. “When the Senate goes into their chambers, there’s a giant painting [Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony] of a bare-chested Native man in a loincloth hanging on the wall … And so, every day, when the members go in to do their business, the images that they see are of Native people stuck in the past.”

Flanagan hasn’t solidified plans for this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day, but she knows she and her family will recognize it in some way. Last year, she spoke at Mitchell Hamline School of Law—and was in her element. Flanagan has advocated for Native Americans in the Twin Cities since her early-2000s college years, when she joined DFL-er Paul Wellstone’s campaign office as an organizer for the urban Native community. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, she oversaw a program through the Division of Indian Work to improve the Minneapolis school district’s relations with Native families.

But her start really came as the kid who spoke up in class, raised in the St. Louis Park school district like her daughter today. Native people were already here, she would interject. He didn’t discover anything. “Some of my teachers embraced it,” Flanagan says. “And some of them did not.”

Minnesota has proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day since 2016. This year, in his first year in office, Gov. Tim Walz will continue former Gov. Mark Dayton’s tradition, Flanagan says. The governor must proclaim the counter-holiday annually; the State Legislature would have to push through a statute acknowledging Indigenous Peoples Day for it to recur as Columbus Day does.

Bills proposing such recognition cropped up when the always-supportive Flanagan served as a state representative. “And I know that if that bill came forward, Gov. Walz would sign it,” she says.

We asked Flanagan to reflect on her own experiences with Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day growing up in St. Louis Park.

What memories do you have of Columbus Day? 

Growing up, celebrating Columbus Day in school was always a little uncomfortable for me, although it wasn’t until I grew older that I knew more about the full context—of who Columbus was, and how, for many Indigenous people, the perspective is that Columbus was certainly the beginning of genocide and horrific treatment and conditions for Native people.

Now, as a mother of a 6-and-a-half-year-old Ojibwe child, I want her, when she is in school, to really learn the truth: that Columbus, frankly, didn’t discover anything—there were already people here, with communities and cultures and societies. I think Indigenous Peoples Day is a much better holiday to celebrate when we think about how anywhere, when you’re in Minnesota, is Ojibwe or Dakota land.

Do you remember when you first heard of Indigenous Peoples Day?

Growing up, that was something we were hearing more about. In my own planner in high school, I would cross out “Columbus Day” and put “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Locally, the movement was leading up to the change in Minneapolis [which declared Indigenous Peoples Day in 2014], and the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) really had a lead role in organizing community members.

I was on the board at the time and was really proud of the change that happened in the city of Minneapolis. The city of St. Paul quickly followed suit and is an acknowledgment of the people who live in the community. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of organizing, a lot of education, but shows that it can be done, and we’re seeing that happen.

When you were in school, was it ever difficult not to take it personally when a teacher didn’t agree with you about Indigenous Peoples Day? 

I mean, I think it’s hard for anybody to not take it personally when you are in a classroom and the person at the front of the classroom is leading and guiding what is a community, right? That’s why it’s so critically important that our Indigenous students, our students of color, our immigrant students see teachers who look like them, have curriculum that reflect who they are and where they come from. And it’s not just for those students; it’s for all students in a classroom.

I grew up in a district [St. Louis Park] where, at the time, there weren’t a whole lot of other Native kids. There was a handful of us. And now, my daughter’s having a very different experience in the district where I grew up, and I’m grateful for that. She has teachers who really value who she is and see having her the classroom as an asset. As a parent, that’s absolutely what you want for your child. And I think that she will definitely have fewer teachers who would disagree with her if she brings her whole self into the classroom and talks about who she is and where she comes from.

Given the pain and trauma within this history, I’m curious as to your thoughts on observing both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day.

I personally believe that we should celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. I believe that the pain and the trauma of Columbus and what he did and what he symbolizes—in my personal opinion—is not worth celebrating.

There’s a difference between holidays that celebrate—with festivities and fun—and those that commemorate—with education and certain seriousness. Where should Indigenous Peoples Day fall?

I think you can do both. What’s most important to me is that we learn about where we came from but also that we acknowledge that Native people are still here. And I think that is celebration: that despite everything Native people have faced, we are resilient, and we remain. And that is absolutely the celebrating. And that is also, I think, what will continue to allow us to make changes in areas of policy that can impact the lives of Native people and Minnesotans in a positive way.