Oklahoma City missed an important opportunity to show inclusiveness as a diverse and modern American city when its council narrowly defeated a measure to create an Indigenous Peoples Day.
Cities and various communities and groups across the country have started to create Indigenous Peoples Days to replace or respond to the archaic Columbus Day, a federal holiday that celebrates the brutal colonizer Christopher Columbus.
Those council members in Oklahoma City who voted recently against the measure argued basically that the issue should be decided by the federal government, but there’s nothing wrong with being at the forefront of an effort to rectify a systemic gross cultural error. This holds especially true for Oklahoma City, which is in a state that has a sizeable American Indian population.
For the record, the vote was 5 to 4. Mayor Mick Cornett, Ward 1 Councilor James Greiner, Ward 3 Councilor Larry McAtee, Ward 8 Councilor Mark Stonecipher and Ward 6 Councilor Meg Salyer voted against the measure.
Ward 4 Councilor Pete White, Ward 5 Councilor David Greenwell, Ward 7 Councilor John Pettis and Ward 2 Councilor Ed Shadid voted in favor of the measure.
Cornett’s vote, in particular, was a huge disappointment. He’s the most visible representative of the city, and he offered no credible reason to not adopt the holiday. Oklahoma City doesn’t really honor Columbus Day in any particular way, which is a good thing, but an Indigenous Peoples Day in Oklahoma City has the potential for a lot of parades, ceremonies and festivities honoring American Indian history here. Meanwhile, the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum sits empty along Interstate 40 near downtown Oklahoma City. Both the council vote and the fact the museum remains uncompleted because of funding problems are disgraceful and symbols of institutionalized bigotry.
Christopher Columbus didn’t discover anything. The sailor under the auspices of the Spanish government traveled to other places in a ship, colonized those places and then enslaved, raped and killed people. He’s credited with establishing European contact with the Americas, but it was based on an overall policy of annihilation and genocide, not benevolence or human unity.
The fact elementary-school textbooks until recently—maybe some still do—painted a rosy, generic picture of the Italian “discoverer” and “explorer” is one of our country’s greatest errors. (Replace “discoverer” and “explorer” with “conqueror” and “colonizer.”) Columbus Day is linked to slavery and racism and genocide. Columbus didn’t even ever land in what is now the United States. Most scholars argue that Columbus’s actions led to the huge trans-Atlantic slave trade and that he was directly responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths on the island of Hispaniola, home now to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
To its credit, the University of Oklahoma celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples Day this year, which makes the Oklahoma City Council vote seem even more backwards and out of touch.
The Oklahoman editorial board, of course, wants everyone to settle down about the issue, and even expects such a measure to pass here all in due time, but it’s difficult to sugar coat the ugly western European and U.S. history of slavery, racism and colonization.
Wouldn’t it have been nice to have Oklahoma recognized throughout the world for doing something positive in terms of inclusiveness and intellectualism? Five members of the Oklahoma City Council, including the city’s mayor, missed that opportunity. You can’t get more on the wrong side of history than that “no” vote.