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Columbus Day Is Out in Seattle Public Schools; Indigenous Peoples’ Day Is in

The Seattle School Board voted October 1 to abolish Columbus Day and instead observe Indigenous Peoples' Day on the second Monday of each October.

Seattle is the place of origin of the Duwamish people. The city’s namesake, Si-ahl, or Seattle, was the first signer of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, which made a large swath of Western Washington available for non-Native settlers. Four Duwamish leaders signed the treaty.

Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians comprise 1.2 percent of the city’s 640,000 population, according to census data on the city’s website. Within the state are 29 indigenous nations that have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Those indigenous nations exercise certain cultural, environmental and political rights within their historical territories. They are, by virtue of the 1855 treaty and subsequent federal court decisions, co-managers with the State of Washington of the state’s salmon and shellfish fisheries.

Yet, few Seattle schools teach the history and culture of the state’s First Peoples. In fact, the curriculum at a high school named for Chief Si-ahl includes a U.S. history course that gives “special attention … to the impact of western expansion on Native American cultures and patterns of migration in the late 1800s,” but that’s it.

That could soon change.

The Seattle School Board voted October 1 to abolish Columbus Day and instead observe Indigenous Peoples' Day on the second Monday of each October. The vote came after the Seattle City Council indicated it intended to approve a similar measure, which it did unanimously on October 6. The city’s resolution is scheduled to be signed by Mayor Ed Murray on October 13.

RELATED: Seattle Poised to Replace Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples’ Day

The school board was notified by the Seattle Human Rights Commission of the city’s resolution and its section encouraging the school board to adopt a similar measure. The city’s resolution was endorsed by 12 organizations and government agencies, including the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the Northwest Indian Bar Association, the Swinomish Tribe, the Tulalip Tribes, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, and the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

The school board’s resolution reaffirms the board’s commitment to “promote the well-being and growth of every District student, especially of Seattle’s … indigenous students.” It recognizes that Seattle was “built upon the homelands and villages of the Indigenous Peoples of this region, without whom the building of the City would not have been possible.” It states that the district “values the contributions made to our community through Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge, labor, technology, science, philosophy, arts and the deep cultural contribution that has substantially shaped the character of the City…”

The school board has a responsibility to oppose “systematic racism toward indigenous people” which “perpetuates high rates of poverty and income inequality, exacerbating disproportionate health, education and social crises,” the resolution states. The school board “seeks to combat prejudice, eliminate discrimination and institutionalized racism, and to promote awareness, understanding, and good relations among Indigenous Peoples and all other segments of our district.”

The resolution promotes closing the equity gap for Indigenous Peoples “through policies and practices that reflect the experiences of Indigenous Peoples, ensure greater access and opportunity, and honor our nation’s indigenous roots, history and contributions.” It strongly encourages district staff to include the teaching of the history, culture and governments of the indigenous peoples of the state.

Matt Remle, Lakota, an educator and journalist who worked with City Hall on the city’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day observance, said he hopes the school district’s measure will result in the teaching of Native history and culture in Seattle schools.

Remle said the City Council’s resolution “calls on the school board to make a commitment to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day and introduce the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty curriculum developed as a result of a 2005 state law.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but one thing I saw today during the testimony [before the City Council vote] is that the city will come to a better place in its relationship with area tribes. This will be a catalyst to building better relations,” Remle said.

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The City Council and School Board’s votes follow Indigenous Peoples’ Day measures in the California cities of Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Sebastopol; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Dane County, Wisconsin; and the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota. Iowa, Nevada and Oklahoma do not observe Columbus Day; most indigenous nations in Oklahoma observe Native American Day instead of Columbus Day.

Remle said more cities could follow—he’s been contacted by other communities exploring similar measures. And 89 miles north of Seattle, Bellingham City Council member Roxanne Murphy, Nooksack, has proposed that her city abolish Columbus Day and instead observe Coast Salish Day.

Murphy said her “dream” is that the movement to abolish Columbus Day will spread throughout the United States. Advocates say Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the Caribbean for Spain in the 1490s included enslavement, rape, mutilation and murder of Indigenous Peoples—a history not worthy of celebrating.

“Now is a time where we can start to help set historical records straight, which is especially important in educational settings,” Murphy said. “This could boost the self-esteem of Native students, and all Coast Salish people, by creating a day that will remove any previous negativity from the former holiday and institute a day of celebration, culture, healing and respect.”

She said her resolution acknowledges that Coast Salish peoples have “lived, worked and played in Bellingham since time immemorial, which could also help students be proud of who they are and where they come from. Additionally, implementing Coast Salish Day would pair perfectly with Washington State House Bill 1495, which requires that tribal history is taught in our school districts.”

She said celebrating indigenous cultures and teaching Native history will improve intercultural understanding and relations between Native and non-Native residents of the area.

“The hope is that all future Coast Salish holidays will include an event to raise tribal flags at Bellingham City Hall, speeches from tribal leaders and Bellingham leaders, and possibly other traditions that the Nooksack Indian Tribe or the Lummi Nation may wish to offer, which could foster improved cultural connections,” Murphy said.

“Generally speaking, Bellingham residents have a yearning to learn more about and support our tribes, and it’s exciting to be at a point in history where our tribes are willing to offer the shareable information with this community. At minimum, since people are hearing about this proposal throughout Washington State and the Nation, so many are learning what Coast Salish is, what it means, and how to pronounce it. That’s progress.”

Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala, president of the Urban Native Education Alliance in Seattle, is hopeful that the Seattle School Board’s vote will “shift the tide” in the district’s relationship with the Native American community.

Sense-Wilson’s nonprofit organization operates youth leadership, cultural education and sports programs for Seattle’s Native American/Alaska Native youth. The organization has been at the forefront of trying to save American Indian Heritage School, for two decades a successful program that the district slowly dismantled, absorbing its students into other schools. The American Indian Heritage School site was proposed to be bulldozed to make way for a new school, but it was declared a local landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board.

Sense-Wilson said observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Seattle public schools could help Native American students feel more included and less alienated, “but if it’s just a token holiday there’s not much to be gained from that.”

She cited this example: A First Nations student who lives with her is in student leadership at a Seattle high school. She proposed a school assembly to celebrate and honor Indigenous Peoples, with guest speakers. It would be an opportunity for Native students to be introduced to role models from Seattle’s Native community. But the proposal was turned down by school administration.

The school board’s vote abolishing Columbus Day in favor of observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day “is a powerful statement. But I hope it’s not superficial,” she said.

Next: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray will sign the city’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution on October 13, 4 p.m., at City Hall. Remle said the signing will be followed by a celebration at Daybreak Star Cultural Center.