Goodbye, Columbus

City Council declares “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”

On Thursday, during an unusually brief and often recessed meeting, City Council amended the city’s campaign finance ordinance, moved to expand access to Austin Energy’s solar energy programs, condemned further display of Confederate memorials, and declared the second Monday of October “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Houston Firefighters Association recognizes Austin FA for help after Hurricane Harvey (Photo courtesy of City of Austin)

It’s the latter resolution – replacing the official local celebration of Christopher Columbus Day with a recognition of the Americas’ “First Peoples” – that is generating the most headlines today, although Council’s action was at first fairly tentative. The initial resolution, sponsored by District 1 Council Member Ora Houston, was simply to add the Indigenous Peoples celebration to the now traditional Columbus Day recognition, “in a spirit of inclusiveness.”

But on the dais – following brief public testimony in support of the change – Council members slowly persuaded themselves to take a stronger position. They first rejected an amendment offered by D8 CM Alison Alter to confirm the “additional” nature of the new recognition, and then D4 CM Greg Casar offered a “rather than” amendment – approved 9-2, with Alter and D8 CM Ellen Troxclair voting no. Troxclair then offered an alternative, detailed amendment, also for dual recognition – it failed for lack of a second.

Council eventually voted 9-1-1 (Troxclair nay, Alter abstaining) to approve the amended resolution, effectively replacing the city’s official recognition of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In the short term, the effect is largely symbolic – although the city’s official documents will change (as they have in a growing number of cities), Columbus Day remains a federal holiday. Nevertheless, D2 CM Delia Garza concluded, “I would just say that if enough cities do what we're doing, at some point, our federal government will recognize us. So that's the whole point of these small changes at the local level.”

It’s also worth recalling here remarks from Columbus himself, in his reports to the Spanish crown of the material prospects of his initial explorations.

“They [the Arawak Indians] were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” – from the Journal of Christopher Columbus, quoted in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

In the end, subjugation wasn’t enough. For lack of gold to plunder, Columbus turned to slavery and slaughter, initiating the complete annihilation of the Arawaks. His biographer Samuel Eliot Morison concluded: "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

With this action, Austin joined dozens of U.S. cities that now recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. They include: Minneapolis, Seattle, Albuquerque, Portland, Tulsa, Denver, Ann Arbor, Santa Fe, and Nashville, as well as the states of Minnesota and Vermont.

A few other Council actions Thursday:

Campaign Finance: Extended to a year (from six months) the period during which City Council candidates can raise campaign contributions, after the shorter period was rejected by a federal court.

Student Tenants: Directed staff to explore ways of expanding students’ access to rental guarantees (e.g., financial aid income) as well as education on tenants’ rights.

Rejecting the Confederacy: Directed staff to identify any existing Austin monuments or memorials to the Confederacy, for potential relocation or removal.

About That Wall: Directed the city’s federal lobbying staff to call for comprehensive immigration reform and to oppose any expansion of border “walls” or militarization.

More Sunshine: Directed Austin Energy to provide more resources for solar energy to “underserved markets”: e.g., “multifamily affordable housing, low-income residents, renters, and non-profits.”

Council’s formal business ended at the unusually early hour of 4pm, although they returned briefly at 5:30 for music and proclamations. For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and the Chronicle’s weekly print edition.

Correction: The headline originally reported, in error, that Council had declared "Indigenous Peoples' Day" for Oct. 12. The recurring date will in fact be the second Monday of October (to coincide with the previous celebration of Columbus Day).

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