On Monday, people across America will celebrate with parades and street festivals held in Christopher Columbus’ honor. Some may even have the day off from work as a holiday. But for the indigenous people of this country – and indeed, this continent – such festivities fail to recognize a history of mass death, cultural annihilation and a legacy which has wrought centuries of ongoing oppression. For these reasons, there is a growing movement among cities and states to commemorate this day, instead, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This reclaimed holiday celebrates the survival, resilience and resistance of indigenous peoples.
No matter where you fall on the Columbus Day-Indigenous Peoples’ Day debate, the fact remains that Christopher Columbus did not discover the New World. Indeed, he “discovered” the Americas just as much as anyone who arrives in present-day D.C. or on the GW campus and claims to have “discovered” it. From time immemorial, the indigenous peoples of North America employed technologies, developed sophisticated economic, political and social systems and established historical alliances with other tribal nations. These homelands were in no way an undiscovered wilderness.
But Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean did leave lasting scars on Native peoples. Genocidal practices decimated indigenous populations and land theft stripped indigenous peoples of their spiritual, cultural, economic and political groundings. Colonial legacies following in Columbus’ wake range from 20th century assimilation-driven boarding schools – where government agents either kidnapped or coerced Native children away from their families – to the disproportionate rates of violence, poverty, suicide and disease afflicting tribal nations. In this year’s headlines, the country watched colonial legacies play out in unpunished police brutality against the peaceful Standing Rock water protectors and the environmental degradation stemming from profit-driven oil pipelines.
In the face of this harrowing reality, indigenous peoples in the United States and across the globe stand strong. Our elders have safeguarded traditional ways and now pass them on to future generations. Tribal nations are reviving indigenous languages, restoring food sovereignty and building their economies. Native communities are investing in education, decolonizing museums and taking control of their own representations in popular culture.
Centuries after Christopher Columbus set off a violent chain of colonial imposition, indigenous peoples have outlasted genocidal attempts. We and our allies are reshaping what the second Monday of October represents: enduring indigenous resilience, strength and beauty. Indeed, there is widespread support from universities, cities and states coast to coast to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Our work at the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy centers around researching the major issues confronting Native peoples and identifying policies to redress disparities. We are the only national University-based center in Washington, D.C. whose purpose is to research, educate and promote public awareness on issues of significance to indigenous communities. Thus, on Oct. 9, we invite you to join us in observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day to remember the tragedies wrought by colonization, honor indigenous resilience and celebrate our cultures and traditions.
Elizabeth Rule is the assistant director of the GW AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.