Confronting America’s Past

Reflections on Indigenous Peoples Day

By Rebecca Carrillo

Denial of indigenous peoples’ nationhood and humanity followed quickly on the heels of contact, with wars of conquest close behind. Columbus led the way into the holocaust… Five hundred years have gone by; and to Native peoples, the relative gains in scientific advancement do not actually make up for the horrendous loss of life, liberty, and, particularly, the denial of the happy pursuit of self-determined cultures and societies. 

— Jose Barreiro, author of The Indian Chronicles and Director of the Office for Latin America, Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian

October 12, 1937 was the first Federal observance of Columbus Day. Celebrations had been happening since the 18th century to commemorate Columbus’ “discovery”–that is, the explorer’s mistaken landing in the Americas on his way to India. In the 1970s, Indigenous Peoples Day began as a counter-celebration.

Participants at the 1977 United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Since then, cities and states around the country have adopted it. South Dakota was the first US state to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, while New Mexico, as of last year, is the most recent. Given that only a handful of states celebrate this holiday, it is clearly controversial.

Why be against recognition of the injustice inflicted on the original people of this land? José Martí, hero of Cuban independence wrote: “Can we not see that from the same blow that paralyzed the Indian, America was also paralyzed? And until the Indian is able to walk, America will never begin to walk well.”

Painful as the fact may be, America’s history is rife with racist and genocidal events:  slavery, the Trail of Tears, lynchings, exploitation of immigrant labor, etcetera. Just in the last 4 years, we’ve seen racial hatred stirred and recharged during some very difficult days for US society.

We are a nation with deeply rooted problems. And I think they’re not ever going away until we summon courage to face them.

We need to begin to heal, and we have a choice. If Vietnam vets can be welcomed in Viet Nam for reconciliation, why not this? If post-apartheid South Africa could open the way to racial equity, why can’t we?

Presently we face a devastating climate crisis yet the media ignore the pipeline dispute on the US-Canadian border area of Wet’suwet’en tribe land. There’s a scandal relating to billions of mishandled COVID relief funds in Alaska impacting fast and direct assistance that has never been met. Is this our “special” kind of American democracy that is unable to help mother nature help us?

We have major battles ahead, and much damage has already been done. Yet I am hopeful for the democratic process, and the spiritual guidance of ancestors to help show the way. Indigenous People’s Day should be a step forward toward confronting America’s historical and current reality. We are at a juncture of a healing opportunity. Not only for us as a country, but as an example to the world.