Indigenous Peoples’ Day: An Or, Not an And

Don't just rebrand, reteach. Photo courtesy of Lianna Maley.

This Monday, when schools, banks and stores close, most Americans will fall into two categories: they either won’t know the history of why they have the day off or, even worse, they’ll continue to have a deeply wrong notion of it. 

Christopher Columbus has, for a while, been described as a hero. As time goes on, more and more people are recognizing his violent impact and its bloody legacy, in America and beyond.

Before Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, there were somewhere between 5 million and 15 million Indigenous people. After that, there were just 238,000 left. Columbus’ reign of violence, murder and rape as well as the diseases he brought over more than decimated entire Indigenous populations and cultures. Thanks to Columbus, Haiti’s entire Indigenous population dissappeared, whether due to murder, malnutrition and untreated diseases by the beloved “explorer” Columbus. 

In Lies my History Teacher Told Me, sociologist James Loewen writes of Columbus: “Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass.”

Yet the slight majority of Americans, many of whom haven’t been taught the accurate history of what Columbus did on his journeys, say they support celebrating Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus destroyed much of what was in all the places he visited, in attempts to take what was valuable from the land, use the people there as work horses and sex slaves so he could bring a sense of achievement back home. 

In Haiti he launched a slave raid, kidnapping 1,500 Arawaks and sending 500 of them to Spain (200 died along the way) as their treasures when they didn’t find gold. He also launched the widespread system of forced labor that was then brought to Peru, Mexico and Florida. 

Columbus is responsible for the first slave trade accross the Atlantic and may be credited with being the person to have sold the most slaves throughout history.

For a College that recently removed the names of slave owners from buildings on campus, it’s difficult to find any logic that would explain why the name of the first transatlantic slave owner is still honored in our academic calendar. 

The question of whether to celebrate Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a major example of a controversy where you can’t have it both ways. You cannot simultaneously honor a culture while also, on the same day, celebrating the man who is responsible for the near extinction of that culture. 

We, at the New Paltz Oracle, believe the school, the state, the nation and the global powers that be should all be celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day — not in addition to Columbus Day and never only “Columbus Day.” 

There’s a growing group of historians who say Columbus may have never stepped foot in North America. But we do know he wreaked havoc all across the globe, especially in the Caribbean. The United Nations’ global Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in protest to celebrating Columbus, offers people a chance to note the ways his murderous rule has harmed Indigenous populations globally.

Some say we shouldn’t necessarily be celebrating either. 

L.H. Roper is a historian, distinguished professor of history at SUNY New Paltz and the former chair of the department. 

“It’s very complicated because some Native people don’t want the Americans. Members of Iroqois nations have their own passports and don’t want to hear it. So it’s not just this idea that, ‘Oh we should include Native people.’ It’s not so easy,” says Roper, who currently teaches the course “Indians of New York State.” “Is the holiday even appropriate? That’s not for me to say.”

Esther Berlin, a writing teacher at Fort Lewis College and member of the Navajo Nation attests to a notion that she and other Native people don’t really have many expectations of America anymore. 

“You know, you definitely can embrace the pain and the genocide that has been our history and our foundation, and that is definitely a valid emotion, a valid, you know, almost reaction for Indigenous people,” Berlin said to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “And I think as you grow in awareness and maturity and are given opportunities to present, we have to go beyond that.” 

“And what I mean by that, individually we all go through our own healing” she says. “We don’t have a healing process in this country called the United States. There is no platform, no medium, no expectation of that.”

The history of relations between Native people in America and the American government is grim. It makes sense why many would surrender any expectation of a partnered healing and growth. Between 1778 and 1871, the U.S. government created 368 peace treaties with Native groups. Few of them have been honored. 

“In an ideal world there would’ve never been a Columbus Day in the first place,” Roper says. “But if people use [Indigenous Peoples’ Day] to think about the history that’s great.”

While we, at the New Paltz Oracle, commend the School for choosing to add Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the calendar, we believe that as an institution of higher education, the School is responsible to not just rebrand, but to reteach. The School rests on Native land — the land of the Lenape tribe — yet students aren’t offered many opportunities to learn about Lenape history or culture. Courses in Native American Studies, an already small discipline, aren’t as strongly encouraged as they could be. Only one of these courses can currently satisfy a diversity requirement — which is the simplest way for the School to encourage students to learn about diverse perspectives. 

Noel Genevieve Altaha, a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, says thoughtfulness and active listening is the most important way to learn. 

“In my tribe, it’s really important to use your words wisely. There’s a saying: nijaa’ hayu [phon.],” she says. “And that’s ‘Where are your ears?’ my grandma would say. And it’s really important to listen more than to talk. Creator gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason—to listen—because listening is more important than talking sometimes.” 

This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, may we choose to listen to the voices of Native people about their histories and ways we may honor their cultures on this day and forever.

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