Utes get Aspen City Council’s ear over Columbus Day

Speaking to members of Aspen City Council on Monday, former Northern Ute Chairman Roland McCook and Deanne Vitrac-Kessler, the founder of the Aspen Ute Foundation, said Columbus Day in a harsh reminder of the displacement and murdering of native Americans.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times |

Aspen City Council’s regular meeting is scheduled Oct. 9, which happens to fall on Columbus Day, a federal government holiday. It also happens to fall on the day that council members will vote to proclaim the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day, which an increasing number of American municipalities are adopting.

Aspen elected officials, who had been generally mum when Councilman Bert Myrin brought up the idea at previous meetings, became more vocal after former Northern Ute Chairman Roland McCook and Deanne Vitrac-Kessler, the founder of the Aspen Ute Foundation, urged them at Monday’s meeting to consider Myrin’s request.

“It concerns my people, the native Americans across the country, that we celebrate a holiday for a person that has caused great pain,” McCook said, “because so many of us suffered, so many of us have been displaced.”

Aspen doesn’t observe Columbus Day, noted City Attorney Jim True. The federal holiday, however, which started in 1937, is recognized by 29 states that close their government offices in observance.

The state of Colorado considers it a legal holiday — it was the first to do so in 1907 — while the municipalities of Boulder, Denver and Durango do not observe it but do recognize Indigenous Peoples Day.

School districts also have the option to observe Columbus Day with school closures; the Aspen School District does not.

“I am supportive of this,” said Councilwoman Ann Mullins about proclaiming Indigenous Peoples Day. “I was down in Denver when they made the change, and it was really wonderful.”

Other council members all voiced their approval, including Ward Hauenstein, who said he would prefer Indigenous Peoples Day over “celebrating the bringer of genocide.”

Prior to miners coming to Aspen in 1879, the area had been inhabited by the Ute Indians for more than 800 years, according to the Aspen Historical Society.

“Though our knowledge of how the Utes lived during those centuries is limited, their respect for the land remains a central tenet of their lives and beliefs,” reads an entry on the organization’s website about the Utes.

McCook reminded council members that Aspen was known as Ute City before it was renamed after the tree in 1880, prompting Hauenstein to suggest the city look at ways to create educational displays “to recognize the Ute heritage of our place.”

Said Mayor Steve Skadron: “I think it’s an opportunity to honor the Ute people who lived in and nurtured our valley.”

At least one letter writer to the Aspen papers criticized Myrin for floating the idea, but there was no one who spoke out against it at Monday’s meeting.

A writer in Maine opined Monday that Columbus was “a pillar of Western culture” whose name has been tarnished by the political left.

“Columbus Day, despite what the left says, is not a day set aside to tread upon the memory of native Americans,” wrote John Balentine for The Forecaster in Falmouth, Maine. “It’s a day to honor all immigrants to this ‘New World’ of America. Indigenous Peoples Day — which, by design, is narrow in scope — honors only those who are native to America. Supporters think it’s necessary to prop up this segment. I don’t think so. We already have a day to honor Native Americans. It’s called Thanksgiving.”

Balentine and others also have argued Columbus Day is a time to celebrate Italian-American immigrants, and doing away with it is an insult to their heritage.

For people like McCook and Vitrac-Kessler, though, keeping the day is an insult to theirs.

“We would like to see this resolution passed as soon as possible so we can move forward,” Vitrac-Kessler said.


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