Detroit celebrates first Indigenous Peoples' Day in place of Columbus Day

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Wayne State University student David Pitawanakwat helped coordinate events at the city's first Indigenous Peoples' Day

Detroit — The city on Monday marked its first Indigenous Peoples' Day with music and prayer on the day traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day.

An event recognizing the new city holiday was held at Spirit Plaza on Woodward near Jefferson just west of City Hall. It is the result of a resolution passed by Detroit's City Council last fall to honor indigenous leaders on the second Monday of October. Columbus Day is a federal holiday that's not been observed as a paid day off for city workers. 

Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López spearheaded the effort in partnership with a coalition of Detroit's indigenous leaders.

The day was commemorated with a Peace and Dignity ceremony to celebrate Detroit's historical importance as a bridge to other indigenous communities in Canada, officials said.

"The native population is often forgotten or ignored or thought of as some mystical being of the past and there's, within the Latino community, a lot of anti-indigenous sentiments," Castañeda-López told a crowd of several dozen participants and spectators at the close of the event downtown. "That's something that we need to continue to combat every day to really celebrate and honor our native ancestors."

Castañeda-López's resolution was the culmination of several years of work. The declaration also came amid debate over controversial statues in public places and after protesting last summer of the city's Columbus statue.

The declaration also honors the state’s 12 federally recognized tribes, historic tribes and indigenous people who live and work in the city.

Antonio Rafael, a southwest Detroit resident and farmer, helped lead the initiative, which for the first time honors the city's rich indigenous history.

"This is a really important symbolic gesture that has the possibility of changing people's minds and changing people's hearts," he said. "It's part of an important shift in consciousness that's happening all over the world, and we hope that this can radiate out from Detroit."

The centerpiece of Monday's festivities was a nearly two-hour ceremony celebrating the survival of indigenous people in the Americas and urging "peace and dignity" for all people of the four directions as represented on the medicine wheel used by Native American tribes for health and healing.

The ceremony featured drumming, dancing and singing and concluded with tobacco prayer ties being added to a birch tree in the Spirit Plaza in the four colors: red, yellow, black and white, to represent the four directions of mankind, organizers said.

The tobacco ties are to remain wrapped to the tree for a full year before they are taken down and burned "to carry those prayers to the creator," said David Pitawanakwat, 29, a political science major at Wayne State University and member of the university's Native American Student Organization. 

Wayne Wilson of Arizona helped lead the "Peace and Dignity" ceremony at the first Indigenous Peoples' Day in Detroit.

"This is our way of life. Native people have always been in Detroit. We're still here today," he said. "That's what we want Indigenous Peoples' Day to be about: recognizing that we're still here and that we're going to be here."

The city joins a growing number of cities adopting similar policies, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Detroit's resolution also called for the ultimate removal of the Christopher Columbus bust at Jefferson and Randolph in downtown Detroit in favor of a monument that would pay tribute to an indigenous figure. But that plan was scrapped after officials said it was unclear whether the city had the authority to do so.

Columbus Day recognizes how Italian Christopher Columbus brought the Americas to the attention of Europe in the 1490s.

Castañeda-López said officials hope to form a coalition to identify funding and a location for a statue commemorating Indigenous Peoples' Day. Removal of the Columbus statue, she added, is something the city could still consider.

"Really, it's not about Columbus at all," she said. "It's about how to we raise the voices and share the stories of people who have been marginalized and forgotten and oppressed for so many generations."