The dream of Indigenous Peoples Day for Wisconsin began inside Indian Community School’s fourth grade classrooms, back in 2016. Students were studying world history and learned about the inaccurate accounts “of discovery” taught in other schools since the 1800’s, along with great injustices including the violent abuse of indigenous peoples, the transatlantic slave trade and the introduction of lethal diseases. These terrible things were credited to Christopher Columbus, but were not widely known or taught in other places. Students also learned that Columbus did NOT discover America and was anything but a hero to indigenous people. Through their studies, ICS students learned that Columbus landed on what he thought was Asia but was in fact, the Caribbean Islands. For centuries, text books have given credit to him for discovering these islands, but they were already occupied. This is key to Columbus’s story, because what followed was truly awful. Students learned that for the rest of his days, Columbus sailed around the Caribbean, murdering indigenous people whom he called “Indians,” thinking he had traveled to India. So what did fourth graders at Indian Community School do when confronted with these truths? They acted upon them!
With the help of their teachers, our Head of School and other ICS leadership, and with the support of the ICS Board of Directors, students worked with local legislators, including Representative David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) and Milwaukee County Supervisor, John Weishan, Jr. of the 16th District, to develop a proposal to Milwaukee County legislators to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day — and they won! Our school celebrated our very first Indigenous Peoples Day in October 2017, but our students didn’t stop there. The following month, ICS students joined Rep. Bowen, Supervisor Weishan and other state legislators in Madison for a Press Conference, Legislators Lobby Briefing and a Rally inside the State Capitol, to persuade lawmakers to vote “YES” in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. ICS students were joined by teachers, parents, ICS School Board members, community members and Tribal Leaders (about 300 people total), in a show of support for a bill that would rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day throughout the State of Wisconsin. The bill was said to have bipartisan support in the State Assembly but did not pass. Our students were disappointed of course, but unwavering in their pursuit.
Then, in 2019, Governor Tony Evers signed an Executive Order at Indian Community School to declare the second Monday in October as “Indigenous Peoples Day”! Tribal leaders from all across our state joined our student body in our Drum, to witness the signing and celebrate our students’ hard work. News media was there to document and share this historic day for all of Wisconsin… but we still weren’t done! News came fast that a Milwaukee County park, previously known as “Columbus Park” was being renamed to “Indigenous People’s Park,” which took place on Indigenous Peoples Day, October 8, 2019. Our entire student body was present and our Eagle Singers Drum took center stage, along with Native leaders and organizations, who joined our many proud moms, dads and grandparents. Yet another historic event that began with our students, whose young, curious minds and unwavering determination, brought us together in celebration.
We are grateful to Ms. Allison Jornlin, a former fourth grade teacher at ICS, who worked tirelessly with our students from the very beginning. With her help, we learned that “children do not need to wait until they are adults to make a difference,” and that widespread change is possible.