CHRISTIANSBURG — Montgomery County is now part of the growing list of localities that officially observe Indigenous Peoples Day — but the decision wasn’t spared the 4-3 vote that has often decided its most important recent issues.
However, contrary to that norm, it wasn’t a party-line split that decided the matter.
The county’s board of supervisors on Monday approved the recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day on the same date as Columbus Day in October, with Republican Todd King siding with the three board Democrats: Sara Bohn, Mary Biggs and April DeMotts.
King offered no comment on his vote.
The resolution received pushback from three board Republicans — Steve Fijalkowski, Darrell Sheppard and Chris Tuck — who weren’t against the recognition, but disagreed with using the Columbus Day date.
Columbus Day, a federal holiday since 1937, has sparked controversy in recent years due to Christopher Columbus’ history with indigenous groups.
Numerous scholars and activists have pushed for the federal holiday’s replacement out of respect and celebration for Native Americans.
Fijalkowski had requested instead that the county’s observation of Indigenous Peoples day occur on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which he said has Native American roots.
“Since Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday, I thought it would be nice to put that holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving, so they’re kind of tied together,” he said during a meeting Monday night. “You know, the atrocities that were committed against Native Americans were horrible. They [Native Americans] were here, they owned the land, and they were run off. I don’t know how we could ever make that better by eliminating one holiday and replacing it with the other.”
Fijalkowski continued: “When you read about Thanksgiving — and you read about how the Pilgrims and the tribes of Indians here — it wasn’t just a meal. Yeah, they had a meal that lasted three days. Then they did it again. They remained close and worked together, for I think history records it as 50 years. And then I guess everything went south. That’s kind of a good time to remember, where there was cooperation between Pilgrims and the Indian tribe that was there at the time.”
Fijalkowski said his suggestion was also inspired by the fact that Virginia recognizes November as American Indian Month.
Tuck, an attorney who majored in history as an undergraduate, agreed.
“There’s no other day on there. It’s not taking away from anybody,” Tuck said. “It’s only adding to and drawing attention to Native Americans. I think that will be a nice thing to do.”
Bohn, who proposed the resolution that was passed, asked Fijalkowski if he had heard local resident feedback about the proposal being controversial. Fijalkowski said he hadn’t.
However, Fijalkowski — citing NPR and CNN — said he had read news reports about the growing movement to end the “celebration of the Italian explorer in favor of honoring indigenous communities and their resiliency in the face of violence by European explorers like Christopher Columbus.”
Bohn said she wasn’t calling for the replacement of Columbus Day, but she argued that the coinciding Indigenous Peoples Day recognition on that date would get more notice.
Fijalkowski asked Bohn if she knew how many state and local governments recognize Indigenous Peoples Day or a similarly named holiday.
“Not off the top of my head, but I do know a fair amount,” Bohn said. “I would say that hundreds of governments celebrate them, and I believe that we could be a notable addition to that, and a leader in our community.”
Tuck asked if the motivation for the motion was driven by the controversy over Columbus Day. Bohn said that was not the motivation.
“I’m bringing it forward for that particular day so we can celebrate with our brothers and sisters across the United States, where most are celebrating the exact same thing,” she said.
The NPR story that Fijalkowski cited included information that there is no comprehensive list of places that have switched out Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day. The outlet did report that at least 10 states recognize some form of Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October.
The Washington, D.C., City Council earlier this month approved the renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, but the decision requires congressional approval to become permanent.