Oklahoma City votes down ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- For the third consecutive meeting, members of the indigenous community piled into the pews inside Oklahoma City's municipal building.

Some breastfed their babies, others quietly chatted with their school-aged children, still more passed the hours on their cell phones as they waited for a chance to speak.

And for the third consecutive time, they walked away disappointed.

By a 5-4 vote, the city council voted against adopting Indigenous Peoples' Day on the second Monday of October, traditionally the day Americans recognize as Columbus Day.

Related: Why some celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day

"I am flabbergasted," said Sarah Adams-Cornell, just after wiping away tears. "I cannot believe the injustice in that city council room right now."

Adams-Cornell had led the charge in Oklahoma City to change a holiday she views as cruel and torturous for her people.

"Indigenous people cannot be a part of Columbus Day," she said. "We cannot be a part of that celebration because we cannot celebrate the genocide of our people."

Adams-Cornell helped mobilize the native community in the Oklahoma City metro area. Over the last six weeks, scores of people from a wide range of tribes stepped up to the microphone to let the city council hear their perspectives.

The community had hoped to pass the resolution in time for it to take effect for this year's holiday.

But two weeks ago, the resolution failed on a 4-4 tie with one member absent. On Tuesday, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Meg Salyer cast her "no" vote, effectively killing the resolution for this year.

"There was a lot of really good, well-meaning people in the council chambers today making emotional pleas and a lot of good cases," said Mayor Mick Cornett, who twice voted against the resolution. "I hope people will listen to them. I think they've got a decent case at what they're trying to accomplish.  But this is a federal holiday and I think the federal government at some point is going to take a look and listen to them and reconsider."

Though Columbus Day is a federal holiday, Oklahoma City does little to recognize it.  City workers do not get the day off and there are no Columbus Day celebrations.  Most councilmembers saw the change as a symbolic gesture having little effect.

But Mayor Cornett says that doesn't change the fact that the city level is not the place to make a change.

"I just think that if you're going to go after a federal law, you should go after the federal government than go city by city or county by county or state by state," he said, encouraging the indigenous community to fight to change the holiday at the federal level.

Sarah Adams-Cornell says she will continue to fight until the holiday is changed, just as it has been in a number of large cities nationwide.

"We will not stop because justice doesn't stop for us," she said. "It's going to happen in Oklahoma City, but they're not the leaders that are going to get us there."