LINCOLN — A line spanning nearly 400 years connects Italian explorer Christopher Columbus to Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe.
When Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, he touched off European colonization that resulted in centuries of displacement of indigenous peoples. In 1879, Standing Bear fought his own removal in an Omaha courtroom, resulting in a landmark decision that recognized Native Americans as people under the law.
Now a state senator from Lincoln wants to replace Columbus Day with an official state holiday honoring Standing Bear and other leaders from Nebraska’s four American Indian tribes. The bill also could bring a national conflict over Columbus — a hero to some, a villain to others — to the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.
“We don’t have a day honoring our first people,” said State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. “Truly, Standing Bear is our Martin Luther King.”
Ending recognition of the Italian voyager strikes George Matuella of Omaha as act of “revisionist history.” Matuella, an officer with the Nebraska chapter of the Sons of Italy, said he understands that Columbus has a mixed legacy, but said he remains an important figure in world history and a source of pride for Italian-Americans.
“Let them find their own day. We have ours,” he said. “Why do they want to rewrite history?”
The bill would make Chief Standing Bear and Indigenous Leaders’ Day the official state holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October. A multipartisan list of seven senators have co-sponsored Legislative Bill 485, which was introduced Tuesday.
Pansing Brooks said she has been thinking of sponsoring the bill for the past couple of years. She approached leaders of the Ponca, Omaha, Winnebago and Santee Sioux tribes in Nebraska to get their input.
As a result, the language of the bill lists the names of Chief Blackbird of the Omaha, Chief Little Priest of the Winnebago and Chief Big Eagle of the Santee.
As a lawyer, Pansing Brooks said she feels an affinity for Standing Bear, whose historic legal struggle took place in Nebraska but holds universal significance as a symbol of equality under the law.
In the late 1870s, the Ponca, a tribe at peace with the United States government, were nonetheless forced to march from their ancestral homeland along the Niobrara River to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The march became their trail of tears.
In January 1879, Standing Bear’s 16-year-old son, Bear Shield, died in Oklahoma. The boy’s dying request was to be buried in his Nebraska homeland.
Standing Bear and 29 others left Indian Territory with the boy’s remains. The father’s subsequent arrest and trial made civil rights history when a federal judge in Omaha ruled that American Indians were people within the meaning of the law.
Judi gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said Tuesday that it would be appropriate if the Legislature passed the bill during Nebraska’s 150th year of statehood.
“I think this is a good time to celebrate the first people during the sesquicentennial and honor them in this way,” she said.
Pansing Brooks pointed out that South Dakota replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day in 1989, while Hawaii calls it Discovery Day. Last year, Lincoln changed the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a name adopted by some other cities.
Since it was declared a federal holiday in 1937, Columbus Day has honored the exploits of the 15th Century explorer who came across the Americas in a quest to find a westward passage to Asia. Italian-Americans say he embodies courage and tenacity.
Terry Bolamperti, president of the American Italian Heritage Society of Omaha, said he appreciates the significance of Standing Bear’s story. But he doesn’t think Nebraska needs to honor one man at the expense of the other.
“I have nothing but praise for Standing Bear,” he said. “But Columbus did a lot of great things. He took a chance. He started the New World.”
Senators who signed on as co-sponsors are Tom Brewer of Gordon, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe; John McCollister and Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha; Laura Ebke of Crete; Joni Albrecht of Thurston; Adam Morfeld of Lincoln; and Paul Schumacher of Columbus. They represent three political affiliations: Republican, Democrat and Libertarian.