For some, Columbus Day invokes memories of grade-school rhymes that tell the singsong story of an explorer who set out for India in 1492 to sail the ocean blue, and instead found America.
But for many Native Americans, including Nooksack tribal member Roxanne Murphy, who serves on Bellingham City Council, those lessons about Columbus were complicated.
“I remember being really confused, as I’m sure other Native Americans are, to celebrate Christopher Columbus when my tribe predated him,” Murphy said. “I asked my parents, ‘Why do we celebrate an individual when so many bad things happened because of what he did?’”
This Columbus Day, Monday, Oct. 13, Murphy will ask her fellow Bellingham council members to honor local tribes by instituting Coast Salish Day.
“This is something I’ve really thought about ever since I was a young girl, when my adoptive parents started talking to me about my cultural heritage,” Murphy said. “At the same time, members of Lummi and Nooksack, and community members in general, were wondering if this is something we could change in Bellingham, wondering how we can bring a positive event forward here.”
If an ordinance passes, Bellingham could recognize the second Monday in October as Coast Salish Day. Future celebrations might include such activities as raising tribal flags at City Hall, Murphy said.
Murphy said the proposal might understandably stir some emotions, but said her intent was not to “create classic disagreements between tribal and non-tribal communities.”
“I know (Columbus Day) means so many positive things to people about America, but it means so many hurtful things to us for what we’ve gone through,” she said. “I’m really hoping we can turn anything that’s negative about this into a really positive day.”
The Seattle City Council will consider a similar ordinance Oct. 6, when council members will decide if Seattle should celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Murphy said she would like to call the local holiday Coast Salish Day, rather than Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to pay respect to tribes from Washington and Canada that traveled up and down the local coast for sustenance and life.
Washington is one of several states that do not celebrate Columbus Day as a legal holiday. Banks and federal government offices are typically closed for the federal holiday.
A list of official city holidays does not include Columbus Day. Whatcom County schools will be open that day.