Lawrence lawmaker sponsors bill to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day

photo by: Richard Gwin

Grace Denning, a Haskell Indian Nations University student from Hoonah, Alaska, says a prayer as she dances along with more than 100 other Haskell students at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, when the Lawrence City Commission first issued a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day.

A local lawmaker is pushing to change a holiday that honors a European man who “discovered” America to honor instead the people who originally inhabited the land.

State Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, is co-sponsoring a bill with Wichita Democrat Rep. Ponka-We Victors, who is Native American, to change the state’s recognition of the second Monday of October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, according to a bill filed in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Columbus Day is also a federally recognized holiday.

Highberger told the Journal-World on Wednesday that he sponsored the bill because he found Columbus Day offensive to Native Americans because Christopher Columbus’ exploration resulted in the genocide of many indigenous people in the Americas.

“I think it’s better to take that date to honor our fellow Native American citizens than to commemorate what was really the start of a long disaster for them,” he said.

photo by: Contributed photo

Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger

Columbus is mostly honored in the U.S. for his 1492 landing in the Caribbean, which quickly set in motion the European exploration of the Americas — and with it, participation in the slave trade and the spreading of deadly diseases that wiped out indigenous populations. Growing awareness of this over recent decades has led to the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in various communities and states across the nation, including Seattle, Vermont, Alaska and Minnesota.

If approved, the bill would recognize that Kansas was “founded and built upon lands first inhabited by the indigenous peoples of this region, including the Kanza and Osage peoples, and acknowledges and honors these members of the community, both past and present.”

The bill would also strike out the state’s designation of the fourth Saturday of September as “Native American Day,” which Highberger said many people don’t seem to observe.

The City of Lawrence already recognizes the date as Indigenous Peoples Day. The Lawrence City Commission first made the change in 2015 after students of Haskell Indian Nations University requested it.

Six months later, the City Commission adopted a resolution recognizing the day as Indigenous Peoples Day every year going forward.

Highberger said no specific groups had reached out to him asking for the change, but he has been aware of the issue for years.

“I know it’s something that’s an issue for a lot of my constituents since we live near Haskell and there’s a large Native American population,” he said. “I know that it’s something that matters to a lot of people in Lawrence.”

Highberger and Victors pre-filed the bill on Jan. 9, prior to the beginning of the legislative session. On Monday, the first day of the session, it was referred to one of Highberger’s committees, the federal and state affairs committee.

Highberger said this was the third time he had sponsored a bill to change the holiday, He said it seemed unlikely that the bill would receive a hearing this session to start the process to become law, but “I’ll keep working on it.”

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