What do Mildred Fish Harnack, Leif Erikson and the state of Wisconsin have in common?

That is not a trick question.

Harnack, Erikson and Wisconsin are three of the 21 people, events or ideas recognized by special “observance days” in the state’s public schools.

Local school board members hope to change that number to 22.

At its first September meeting, the Janesville School Board voted to send a resolution to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards asking to add Indigenous People’s Day to the observance day list.

If the resolution makes it through the association’s committee process, it will be voted on during the state’s school board convention in January.

But to become an official observance day, it has to go through the state Legislature.

Francis and Abe

The Legislature began creating statutorily required observance days in 1923.

The first three observance days honored George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frances Willard, the Janesville schoolteacher who headed up the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1929, Erikson, Christopher Columbus and Veterans Day were added. In 1935, America’s Creed Day made the list.

For the next four decades, the list of observance days didn’t change.

In 1976, the Legislature added Martin Luther King Jr., Robert La Follette and Susan B. Anthony, bringing the total to nine.

The remainder were added after 1986.


Chapter 118.02 of the state statutes indicates which days must be observed, but it doesn’t say anything about how that should happen.

“It is very likely that the observance of observance days varies from school to school across the state,” said Patrick Gasper, communications specialist for the Janesville School District.

Students already learn about many of the historical figures and events during the school year, Gasper said.

Most Janesville students take field trips to the Frances Willard Schoolhouse and learn about Lincoln’s brief stop in Janesville.

Observing these days could mean anything from an announcement over the loudspeaker in the morning to a special program for Veterans Day.

Making it 22

So why add another observance day?

A number of cities and states have decided to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of—or in conjunction with—Columbus Day.

But Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers said her resolution wasn’t necessarily about replacing Columbus Day.

“This is not about winners and losers,” Myers said Friday. “It’s about having a full picture of history.”

The observance day would celebrate the indigenous people of Wisconsin, not those who were enslaved by Columbus.

“This particular observance day represents a segment of our population that is very much a part of our history and culture,” Myers said. “It’s a part of our history that is oftentimes underrepresented or misrepresented.”

The resolution might not be directly connected to Columbus Day, but it came about because some people asked that Columbus Day be removed and replaced with a celebration of native people.

Critics of Columbus Day point out that Columbus didn’t reach mainland North America, and his treatment of indigenous people included torture, genocide and enslavement.

Historians don’t dispute those facts. As their source, they cite Columbus’ own diary and letters.

The board’s policy, personnel and curriculum committee took up the issue. After a long debate, it decided that the issue should be handled at the state level.

In a memo to the board, Allison DeGraaf, the district’s director of learning and instruction, wrote, “The School District of Janesville does not endorse Christopher Columbus as a positive role model, but educators and historians cannot ignore the significance of his impact on North and South America. It is our hope that we can foster historical critical consciousness in students with the support of parents and the community.”

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