Today, as we have done every second Monday in October since 1937, the United States celebrates Christopher Columbus and his 1492 voyage to America. Considering that the Italian explorer certainly wasn’t the first to discover the New World but enslaved Native Americans on the island of Hispanola (where modern-day Haiti is located) and slaughtered countless others, Vermont and some cities don’t observe the federal holiday. They celebrate their indigenous people instead.
In Fort Lauderdale, local artist and gallery owner Robin Merrill has spent the past year urging the city to similarly abolish Christopher Columbus Day and observe Indigenous People’s Day in its place. Merrill also requests that the city move the statue of Christopher Columbus from the city hall lobby. Today, she says, people should visit the display of indigenous patchwork jackets at city hall instead.
“Christopher Columbus is the father of human trafficking and the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Merrill tells New Times. “Why in the world are we honoring this person? It's very painful to a large population."
The area of Fort Lauderdale was first settled by the Tequesta people. In the 1600s, Spanish explorers nearly decimated the entire indigenous population with diseases like smallpox. In the 1800s, William Cooley was one of the area’s first settlers. After some Seminoles killed his wife and children, white settlers fled the region. Merrill points out that in the 1830s, Fort Lauderdale was the first stockade built to fight against the local indigenous people. It was a battleground during the Second Seminole War.
“[The 1800s military fort of] Fort Lauderdale was built for one purpose only: to exterminate indigenous people — for genocide,” Merrill says. “It’s important to recognize Indigenous People’s Day for healing and cleansing the wounds that are still there.”
Last year, Merrill launched an online petition. Last December, she spoke to commissioners in a powerful three-minute presentation. In it, Lee Tiger of the Miccosukees dressed in a patchwork jacket and held up a cowhide declaration calling to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.
“The way people feel about Columbus is idolatry — hanging onto this notion of who we are as a conquering nation and our spirit of adventure,” Merrill says. “People don’t want to let that go, but let’s not confuse the facts: Columbus never came to Florida or hit our shores.”
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Though Columbus Day isn’t a state or local holiday, Merrill says the city still idolizes Columbus. She points to a bronze statue of Columbus’ head in the middle of the city hall lobby. She says it’s the only permanent piece of artwork there.
“People walk by it every day — it’s smack in the middle of the lobby in city hall — and don’t know that it’s there or what I’m even talking about,” Merrill says. “I don’t mean any disrespect to the artist, but it’s time for its retirement.”
In its place, Merrill suggests that the city display a dugout canoe. She says it’s more fitting and symbolic of the city’s history as a Native American trading post along the New River. In the meantime, Merrill urges residents to visit the monthly art display at City Hall. For October, Merrill’s gallery Tribal Arts Project has eight indigenous patchwork jackets exhibited at City Hall. Coincidentally, they’re placed beside the Columbus statue.
“Art is important symbolism,” Merrill says.