Local activist Robin Merrill has made it her mission to have the City of Fort Lauderdale abolish Columbus Day and have it replaced by Indigenous People's Day. Merrill, who has worked with the city on numerous cultural projects, says she's been moved by her spiritual beliefs and her conscience to convince Fort Lauderdale commissioners to celebrate local indigenous peoples, rather than Christopher Columbus, on October 12.
Merrill will be speaking at tonight's commission meeting for three minutes to address her desire for change.
"Columbus arrived here under the guise that he was fulfilling Biblical prophecy," Merrill tells New Times. "When he arrived here, he forced indigenous people to convert to Christianity but then wouldn't allow them to get baptized so that he could keep raping and pillaging them. If they weren't baptized, he could still reason that they were savages. This isn't all hearsay. This is history."
Merrill says she was moved to try to make a change after she befriended local members of several local tribes, particularly Lee Tiger, a local musician and son of the late Miccosukee Tribe leader Buffalo Tiger.
Merrill sent out requests to Fort Lauderdale commissioners to have her idea put in as an item for a future meeting but never received a response. She showed up at the October 20 commission meeting and sat down at the entrance of the room as the commissioners went about their agendas for the evening. Tiger, dressed in full Seminole garb, sat with her. As the meeting wound down, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler asked Merrill and Tiger what they were there for.
"We told him, and he said he'd work to make our request an agenda item," Merrill says.
Merrill says she understands why there might be reluctance on the commissioners' part. It's a complex and thorny issue, she admits, but one she believes can become a reality in time.
As a Christian missionary, Merrill has worked at trying to end human trafficking and to bring awareness of it locally. She considers Columbus "the father of human trafficking" and sees this as a sort of spiritual connection to try to make things right.
"I knew nothing of the Seminole Wars and Fort Lauderdale's connection to it," she says. "I feel slighted for not being made aware of this before. But once you learn something, you’re responsible for that knowledge. We can't change what happened in the past, but as an artist, I approach it with simple acts that I believe will bend towards justice and acknowledgment of someone else’s pain."
Merrill says her speech at tonight's meeting will be a three-minute "act of contrition," as she celebrates her 30th anniversary of being a Christian missionary. This time around, thanks to a Neighbor Presentation approval by the commissioners, she will have time to speak directly to them.
She'll also be submitting signatures from a petition to have Columbus Day changed to Indigenous People's Day.
"The fort of Fort Lauderdale was a real military fort that was built to forcibly remove the Native American population," the petition reads. "There were three Seminole Wars that were waged by the U.S. federal government from this area. As a step of contrition and toward social justice, we urge the current Fort Lauderdale City Commission to adopt Indigenous People's Day on October 12."
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Merrill says she'll be reading what she considers a "very personal" speech from a cow hide parchment in honor of the Buckskin Declaration, which was written on deer skin. She sees the speech and cow hide as spiritual homages to what she's looking to accomplish.
"There has to be a spiritual approach," she says. "In abolishing Columbus Day, we would be striking at the spiritual roots of human trafficking. Hopefully, the commissioners can put it on the agenda as soon as possible."
Merrill acknowledges that she's undertaking a difficult task but remains optimistic.
"I’m not coming in an antagonistic way," she says. "We know this will take time. But if we approach it in a nonhostile manner, with education and awareness, we can change things. Radical revolutionary things can be done without fighting or spite or fear. It can be done."