Minnesota Rethinks Columbus Day

As Indigenous Peoples Day catches on, Mankato joins Minnesota cities backing away from Columbus Day
The Mahkato Wacipi Pow Wow is held each September in Land of Memories Park in Mankato
The Mahkato Wacipi Pow Wow is held each September in Land of Memories Park in Mankato

Courtesy SPX Sports

In the early 1990s, not long before the 500th anniversary of the year European explorer Christopher Columbus’ ships landed on a Caribbean island, a new narrative began taking hold across the U.S.

It came from various voices, including a new educational resource guide, Rethinking Columbus, positing that Columbus didn’t “discover” America. Rather, he stumbled upon a civilization thousands of years old and ultimately instigated genocide through disease, warfare, and massacre.

In the ensuing years, at least seven states, six counties, and roughly 120 cities and municipalities turned Columbus Day—the federal holiday on the second Monday of October—into a counter-holiday, celebrating the Americas’ original inhabitants. It’s most commonly known as Indigenous Peoples Day.

Minneapolis made Indigenous Peoples Day official in 2014—among the first cities outside California to do so—while still recognizing Columbus Day. St. Paul adopted the holiday in 2015. In 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day statewide. (Minnesota has seven Anishinaabe reservations and four Dakota communities.) On Monday, October 14, gatherings across the state—in Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, the Twin Cities—will put Native history front and center. They’ll stage performances of traditional song and dance, organize educational panels, and host Indigenous artists and speakers.

[The Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) has had to cancel this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day Festival for lack of funding and to refine their approach, according to arts and culture engagement manager Alexandra Buffalohead. It is scheduled to return in 2020.]

This bison carved from Kasota limestone stands in Mankato's Reconciliation Park in honor of the area's Dakota heritage
This bison carved from Kasota limestone stands in Mankato’s Reconciliation Park in honor of the area’s Dakota heritage

Courtesy Visit Mankato

Marking Mankato

In Mankato, recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day has felt a little more urgent than in might in other Minnesota cities.

A group of Native Americans and Diane Dobitz, a former middle school teacher who now teaches English to immigrants and refugees, started the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee in 2018. Dobitz handed out copies of Rethinking Columbus to the mayor and city council members. Later that year, the council voted in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, despite then-mayor Eric Anderson voicing dissent.

“If there should be a city in Minnesota that honors that day and does something about it,” Dobitz says, “Mankato, more than any, ought to be doing something—because of what happened here.”

She’s referring to the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged after the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862, near what is now the Mankato City Center Hotel. Back then, the U.S. government had reneged on treaty agreements, townships had encroached on farming and hunting lands, and a white trader had suggested the starving Dakota “eat grass or their own dung.” War broke out. After surrendering, the Dakota 38 were hastily convicted of war crimes.

For almost 50 years, the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association has honored the 38 with the Mahkato Wacipi pow wow, held this year on September 20-22. White commemoration, meanwhile, has gone awry: The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s “Scaffold” structure, evoking the gallows used, came down in 2017 after local Native Americans deemed it offensive. A 1912 execution-site monument, which some saw as glorifying, mysteriously disappeared in the ’70s.

Before Mankato’s city council ratified Indigenous Peoples Day, Mayor Anderson said he opposed its concurrence with Columbus Day. City staff dropped part of the committee’s proposal—the part saying that Columbus “began the exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples whose lands were taken for the formation of the United States of which Mankato, Minnesota, is a part.” Anderson noted, “Human beings make mistakes.”

Mankato’s Indigenous Peoples Day does not address the 1862 execution directly, according to Megan Schnitker, a member of the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee and the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association. Instead, the aim is broader: to place history in Native hands. At the same time, the committee has not backed a separate push to rename Mankato’s Sibley Park—even though the park’s namesake, Henry H. Sibley, first governor of Minnesota, signed land-grab treaties harmful to Natives.

“We’re not trying to erase history,” Schnitker explains, noting that she has no problem with people also recognizing Columbus Day. “We are asking that our history be included.”

Inclusivity goes both ways: In Mankato, the day of community education also resembles an all-are-welcome block party.

On Friday, October 11, Native artists, musicians, and food trucks will post up in Mankato’s Hub Food Park. Schnitker hopes to feature booths from the Somali community, among others, arguing, “It should be a merger of cultures, if anything.” (In a sense, it’s like a more inclusive version of what Columbus Day used to be—when Italian immigrants, in 1937, lobbied for its national recognition as an expression of pride.)

That weekend, Spotlight Theatres host afternoon screenings of The Past Is Alive within Us, a PBS documentary about the U.S.-Dakota War’s legacy of inequity. A panel will take place at Minnesota State University, Mankato, to explain Columbus’ story from a Native perspective and to touch on the Sibley Park controversy.

“Basically, in the Midwest, there’s no big, huge events [for Columbus Day] other than, like, mattress and car sales, that I know of,” says Schnitker, who will speak on the panel.

Schnitker grew up immersed in Lakota culture on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation and later founded the Mahkato Revitalization Project nonprofit in Mankato, teaching Lakota and Dakota history and traditions to children.

“My first grader came home—it was a week before that holiday—and she said, ‘Mom, there’s this guy that they’re trying to teach us about, and he supposedly discovered America, but didn’t you say that we lived here long before him?’” Schnitker laughs. “I said, ‘Yeah.’”

Some still resist. Dobitz says one of her siblings has argued, of Columbus’ impact, “‘It’s from the past, it happened, and now it’s over, so quit bringing it up.’” In South Dakota, Schnitker has seen Indigenous Peoples Day come up against white folks’ fixation on “the negative sides of reservations.” Namely, addiction—something historians have linked to European settlers’ introduction of distilled alcohol, plus U.S. policies exacerbating dependence in Native communities.

White participants, Dobitz acknowledges, may confront guilt. She knows this firsthand. Teaching middle school art—before Rethinking Columbus—she had students paint Columbus’ ships, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. Today, she has a phrase pasted on her mirror: “Don’t want to be a fragile white person? Get uncomfortable and get used to it.”

For those on the fence: “I’m not going to go into your living room and tell you how to live your life,” Schnitker says. “But I do think that people should be open-minded enough to learn all sides of history.”

Read more: Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the highest-ranking Native American woman elected to executive office in U.S. history, reflects on Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day.