Gov. Tony Evers has declared the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Wisconsin — the day federally recognized as Columbus Day. The state joins a growing list of others, such as Minnesota and New Mexico, that have chosen to celebrate native peoples instead.
However, Evers' order doesn't change federal or state observances of Columbus Day in Wisconsin. It just honors and recognizes Indigenous people and Native Nations.
One might say that Indian Community School students are the reason Indigenous Peoples Day is being observed across Wisconsin.
In 2016, fourth-grade students, who are now seventh graders, helped get a resolution celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day passed on the county level. They even traveled to the state capitol a year later to push for the same to happen statewide.
That day has finally come.
Annabelle Jaworski, one of those students, is excited.
"I’m really happy and excited because … well, our ancestors were here before Columbus and now we get to honor and remember them," she explains.
An intimate ceremony was held at Indian Community School in Franklin, Wis. Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes stood before dozens of students, faculty, tribal leaders and other leaders from across the state who gathered to witness a historic moment that some say was long overdue for Indigenous people here: the signing of an executive order that would declare the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day.
Barnes said, "Today, we seek to recognize and honor our state’s Indigenous communities while moving beyond a much-dated practice that perpetuates inaccurate teachings, and it honors genocide. Today, we stand before you to honor the historical sacrifices that Indigenous people have made to this state and to celebrate the cultural, social, and economic contributions that these communities continue to make all across Wisconsin."
Indigenous Peoples Day was already being celebrated in parts of the state before Evers' order. Milwaukee County declared Oct. 9 Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017.
But the head of Indian Community School, Jason Dropik, says having this declaration go statewide acknowledges all the tribes that exist in Wisconsin. He says it legitimizes their presence and contributions to society — and not just historically.
"It's often how we hear about native perspectives, is something in history. But it's thriving, it's still taking place today," he says. "So, I think what it really does is encourages students to acknowledge who they are, to have that strong sense of identity, to continue to push for things they believe are right and know that they’re respected and valued."
More and more cities and states are opting to celebrate Indigenous people on or around Columbus Day. Kimberly Blaeser says she’s noticed the trend, and to her knowledge, doing so dates to the 1990s.
Blaeser, a professor at UWM in the English and Indigenous Studies program, talks about the significance of Evers' order: "It’s officially recognizing that Indigenous people are still here, still making contributions to world societies. But also to recognize them as inhabitants of this land originally, and to make note of the rich histories and cultures."
Back at the ceremony, Ned Daniels Jr., the chairman of the Forest County Potawatomi, mentioned that a lot of that rich history is still unknown to many.
"Native Americans have lived across our state for thousands of years, and they've left long-lasting marks that can still be seen today. And unfortunately, people still don't know of the significant impacts that the tribe had in shaping the Wisconsin of today."
But Daniels says the executive order is a positive step forward.
Before signing the order, Evers acknowledged there's still a lot of work to do to make Wisconsin more equitable.
"While we have a lot of work to do here in Wisconsin to make it more equitable, I'm confident that we will get there if we work together and respect all people. And that's why I'm proud as I stand here today, next to Wisconsin tribal leaders, to sign this executive order," he says.
Evers signed his order surrounded by the same students who advocated for this moment.
Parts of Evers' order says he recommits to the state's efforts to promote the well-being and growth of Wisconsin's Native American communities. And he strongly encourages all Wisconsinites to be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples throughout the state.
In continuing to celebrate Indigenous people in Wisconsin, Columbus Park on Courtland Avenue in Milwaukee has been renamed Indigenous Peoples Park.
Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.
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