Let’s Break it Down | Observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Reframing History

Evelyn Carter, PhD
Dr. Evelyn Carter
Articles

There’s an adage that goes, “History is written by the victors.” Although the origins of this quote are unknown, it seems that many cultures have a version of this cautionary tale: the stories that we hear about historical events are told through a particular lens, one often sugar-coated in favor of the winners. Perhaps this is why the United States continues to struggle with just what to call the holiday that falls this coming Monday. According to a recent Pew Research survey, about 20 states refer to it as Columbus Day, another 20-ish refer to it as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and others observe something else entirely.

For some, Columbus Day brings to mind inaccurate visions of Christopher Columbus on his triumphant voyage to “discover” the “New Land” that became the United States. For others, Columbus Day conjures a different image altogether: one that’s symbolic of entitled colonizers who claimed land that was already occupied for their own, and the subsequent genocide of Indigenous people. The latter is why, in recent years, various groups have advocated for changing the name of the holiday and commemorating the people impacted by colonization instead of idolizing the colonizer. 

One of the benefits of promoting the name Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that it focuses attention on the correct party. Here are some ways to celebrate and honor the Indigenous people of this country.

Learn more about the original inhabitants of this land

The myth that Columbus discovered what is now the continental United States has been long debunked (he did eventually land in Puerto Rico, which is now an unincorporated U.S. territory [and a whole other blog]). Regardless, before any explorers or settlers landed on the modern-day U.S., Indigenous people lived on and took care of this land. One great way to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day is by learning more about those tribes. Thankfully, there are tools like the Native Land app that allow you to put in your address and learn about the history, present state, and future of the tribes that lived there. While doing your research on learning about Indigenous land, you might come across the practice of land acknowledgments. The practice varies, but it is generally seen as a way to acknowledge the Indigenous inhabitants of where you live or work. As with some other well-intentioned DEI practices (remember the safety pin era?), land acknowledgements can turn into a performative gesture that takes some weird twists. If you’re considering adopting it, spend some time really reflecting on what this practice means — use this guide from the Native Governance Center to get you started.

Host frank conversations about colonialism and its ongoing impact

Regardless of whether you live in a place that observes Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, there is still an opportunity to discuss the impact of colonialism. Instead of centering Columbus as the hero discoverer, talk about the impact he and others had on decimating Native people that lived in the lands they went on to occupy. You won’t have to look very far for these stories. I recently went on a trip to Yosemite National Park, and as part of the trip I took a tour of the Valley Floor. I was pleasantly surprised that the tour spent a fair amount of time talking about the Indigenous people that lived there before the National Park Service got involved (though I take issue with the framing that the Park Service asked the Indigenous folks to leave). However, the gravity of realizing that a space the size of Rhode Island was stolen and transformed into a tourist destination was not lost on me. The realization was uncomfortable, as it should be. And we must all be willing to grapple with that discomfort as we reframe the palatable narratives we’ve heard before.

Consider what other holidays and observances deserve a re-writing of history

Continuing with the theme of reflecting and telling new stories, use Indigenous Peoples’ Day to reflect on other historical narratives that could use a rewrite. For example, several years ago, my niece came home from elementary school downright incensed about Thanksgiving. In her words, “Can you imagine someone coming over to our house, and then after we invite them in and take care of them they tell us that we have to leave?!” When you put it that way, it does sound ridiculous. And her incredulity around this story being the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday paved the way for a great dinner table discussion about whose story gets entered into canon.

The history of the United States is much more complicated than the simplistic narratives many of us were taught growing up. This is why it’s imperative that, as adults, we take the opportunity to really reflect on our nation’s past, present, and future by meaningfully honoring days like Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Whether you have the day off from work or not, I hope you find ways to do so that enrich your own understanding of what it means to champion equity and inclusion for Indigenous people.

October 5, 2022

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