RED WING — Thanks to a push from a Red Wing High School social studies teacher, the city might soon find itself in the unique position of defying a nationally recognized holiday.
The Red Wing Human Rights Commission recently voted unanimously to support the brainchild of Scott Bender, who is seeking to replace Columbus Day with First Peoples Day. It's an idea Bender has been pushing since he joined the commission nearly three years ago. But his distaste for the holiday dates back to his college days, when the country was planning the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus discovering the New World in 1492.
Bender's two-page document accuses history books and popular culture of romanticizing the story of Christopher Columbus. The pointed criticism says Columbus enslaved thousands of indigenous people, imposed cruel work requirements on slaves, and committed other acts of savagery that eventually led to his arrest and trial under Spanish King Ferdinand.
The proposed change is being touted as a way to accept a multicultural perspective and build trust between Native American and white communities, among other things.
"Through the course of several years of doing research and thinking it through, it was more and more clear that society has got to the point where Columbus Day is almost an embarrassment," Bender said. "It's pretty obviously not a guy we should be celebrating."
As such, Bender is proposing that Red Wing designate Oct. 12 as First Peoples Day. The Commission acknowledges that such a change — which would be largely ceremonial — could be "puzzling or even troubling" to local citizens, but Bender insists it would be for the greater good.
"The whole intent here is to honor people who are really deserving of honor and ideally using it as a vehicle for education and straightening out the historical record so we have a better idea of what actually happened rather than the total myth that's printed in our history books," Bender said.
Columbus Day was first celebrated in Colorado in 1906. It was made a federal holiday in 1937. However, controversy surrounding Columbus dates back to at least the 19th century. Protests continue to this day in the form of Bender and Geoffrey Symcox, an editor from UCLA who completed a compendium on Columbus in 2004.
"Many of the unflattering documents have been known for the last century or more, but nobody paid much attention to them until recently," Symcox wrote. "It changes our whole view of the enterprise."
That new perspective could soon be embraced by the Red Wing City Council, where Bender's language was considered for the first time during last week's workshop. Though no official action was taken, at least three city council members expressed their support.
"I'm not too keen on this whole thing simply because it's a federal holiday," said council member Peggy Rehder, who said she's only heard negative feedback on the idea from citizens. "On the other hand, I don't think it's a bad idea because I think it's a good thing to honor other people, too."
Rehder's uncertainty played a role in her recommendation that the resolution be sent to the Prairie Island Indian Community for its ideas. Red Wing, which was named after a Native American chief, hopes to schedule a joint meeting with the Tribal Council in the coming months.
Prairie Island Indian Community public relations manager Cindy Taube said the council has yet to see the proposed resolution, but they appreciate any effort to "recognize and honor the unique cultural and historical connection of the Mdewakanton Dakota to the Red Wing area."