Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Debates Indigenous Peoples’ Day

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be forced to defend the Catholic Church," Donovan thundered.

By - Oct 15th, 2019 02:13 pm
Bob Donovan.

Bob Donovan.

The Milwaukee Common Council was poised to join the slate of governmental units rebranding Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The proposal, which would honor North America’s first residents, was unanimously approved by the Community & Economic Development Committee on October 2nd.

Then things got weird.

Alderman Robert Donovan, who voted for the measure at committee, came out against the proposal in a press release on October 8th. That news came the same day that Governor Tony Evers announced the state would follow suit and signed an executive order proclaiming the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Donovan, in his press release, said he had changed his mind and that the measure was of little significance because federal law regarding the holiday wouldn’t be changed and the city already did little to recognize Columbus Day.

He doubled down on Tuesday.

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, the proposal’s lead sponsor, spoke in favor of it on the council floor.  “We know that he sailed the ocean blue in 1492,”said Lewis of Christopher Columbus. “But what they fail to tell us is he didn’t land on an empty island, he landed in a community in a sense that was already populated and unfortunately decided to take over that space and commit genocide.”

“Christopher Columbus was labeled as a perpetrator of genocide, and while we can certainly disagree on our facts, I challenge that. I feel compelled as a Catholic to stand up for this man’s faith which was an exceedingly important aspect of his life,” responded Donovan. “I am not aware of him ever being personally linked to genocide, linked to slavery either.”

“I have absolutely no problem recognizing the struggles of our indigenous peoples. I am not prepared to do it at the expense of other groups or people like Christopher Columbus,” concluded Donovan.

But the discussion was far from over.

“With all due respect to my colleague, facts are not things we can disagree about. They are things we can learn,” said Ald. Nik Kovac. He said the proposal was long overdue. Kovac suggested people interested in the issue read the first chapter of Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States. The alderman said it was required reading at Riverside University High School where he and a number of his colleagues attended school. “Genocide is a kind word for what was going on.”

Alderman Mark Borkowski, a fellow Catholic with Donovan, said he would abstain from voting on the measure. “I want to have it both ways, but apparently I can’t,” said the south-side alderman. “I’m going to take the chicken way out.”

“If you’re hiding behind your religion, you should know that you need to live it out loud,” said Lewis, an ordained minister.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think the day would come on the floor of the Common Council I would be forced to defend the Catholic church,” responded Donovan.

“I’m not going to stand here and have my Catholic faith belittled by anyone or dragged through the mud or Western Civilization and what that has accomplished and contributed to the Americas,” said the proud Irish Catholic.

Council President Ashanti Hamilton interjected to say he didn’t think that’s what Lewis and others were saying.

Donovan offered a compromise. “Let’s bring in some experts,” said Donovan. “Despite the vast wealth of knowledge of Alderman Kovac, I don’t think any of us are experts on the history of Christopher Columbus.”

Kovac said he didn’t think the measure should be held, but he welcomed the discussion as a future item. “If the only sources we are we willing to consider are Catholic we should consider Bartholomew De Las Casas,” said the alderman of the 16th-century Dominican friar.

The council passed the measure on a 13-1-1 vote.

The measure was sponsored at the committee level by Lewis and Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs. Cavalier Johnson, Russell W. Stamper, II, Khalif Rainey, Hamilton and Kovac. It was first introduced in December 2017 by Lewis.

The invocation at the meeting was given by Native American motivational speaker and cultural activist Brian Frejo.

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Related Legislation: File 171304

Categories: City Hall, Politics

2 thoughts on “City Hall: Council Debates Indigenous Peoples’ Day”

  1. sbaldwin001 says:

    Is anyone else reminded of Dar Williams’s song “The Christians and the Pagans”?

  2. frank a schneiger says:

    What will Milwaukee do without Bob Donovan, and what will he say tomorrow? As they say, the man will be truly missed when he is gone. That being said, as a fellow Southside Catholic, I would make the following observations, one of which may put some of the alderman’s fears about rampant anti-Catholicism to rest. As a holiday, Columbus Day is among our stranger ones, since it is the day on which Italian Catholics celebrate the birth of a Spanish Jew who brought sexually transmitted disease and slavery to the new world.

    Given alderman Bob’s ongoing search for truth and expertise, here is a suggestion: he and his colleagues should read “Empire’s Crossroads: a History of The Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day” by historian Carrie Gibson. It is not a pretty picture. Note to Bob: Columbus never touched mainland North America, never visited Milwaukee’s Southside, including Bay View.

    Finally, growing up on 26th and Mineral, I – and pretty much everyone else – assumed that we (the Poles and Yugoslavs) were the indigenous people, and that my next-door friends, Monty and Curtis, who were Native American, were the newcomers. Who knew?

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