On Monday the 8th, a great number of colleges, universities, cities, a few states and the people associated with those places marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It was a day of celebration and remembrance of Amerindian culture and history. For a few hours, the campus of Minneapolis College was permeated with the sound of beating drums and the pitter patter of beaded dresses.
The celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not without plenty of historical context, of course. It is in fact meant, in some measure, as an alternative to a holiday, recognized by many institutions including the federal government, known as Columbus Day. Regardless of intent, the political background of these competing holidays is unavoidable and rife with division.
Columbus Day, which was official recognized by governmental bodies starting in 1892, is a holiday meant to celebrate the arrival of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in the Americas. He is the first recorded European to set foot in the Americas, and as an agent of the Spanish crown, played a large role in the opening stages of colonization in this hemisphere. Columbus Day, which traditionally falls on the 12th of October, the anniversary of his arrival, has until recently been appreciated as a holiday to promote national pride and historical awareness.
Columbus’ has been criticized because of the practices of his colonial undertakings, which in general can be described as genocide. In a contemporaneous report, a Dominican friar who spent time in the West Indies immediately following Columbus’ arrival wrote of cruel and inhumane treatment of the indigenous peoples’ living there. This treatment included enslavement, rape, and mutilation, all employed as a means to totally control and exploit the population. Columbus himself participated in these abuses, documenting it in the journal that he kept during his voyages.
The first broad discussions in modern times among Amerindian cultural and political groups of instituting a replacement for Columbus Day occurred in 1977 in Geneva. In 1989, South Dakota become the first state to pass a resolution recognizing the second Monday in October as a holiday for the appreciation of Native American history and culture. They were followed in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, by the city of Berkeley, California, which became the first city in America to observe the holiday. The activists in Berkeley that achieved this had the intent to replace Columbus’ Day with this new holiday, in protest of the man himself as well as the broader European colonization of the Americas and the catastrophic effect that it had on the indigenous peoples’ of this hemisphere.
Minneapolis went ahead with the change in 2014, after years of work by local native activist organizations, such as the Native American Rebuilding Institute. Our city was one of the first in a recent wave of municipalities moving to make this change, in part because, among large metropolitan areas, Native Americans make up a bigger portion of the population here than anywhere else in the country. Here they make up around 5% of the population, which is quite substantial relative to their share of the population nationally.
Here at MCTC, the day was marked with a variety of activities that took place in the Helland Center. This included an informational panel which discussed topics of import to the Native American community as well as a few cultural performances such as a series of dances accompanied by drumming and a standalone drumming performance.
The dances were colorful displays, with the dancers dressed entirely in traditional attire. The intricately beaded garments, adorned with leather and feather tassels, and augmented by towering headdresses were beautiful and intimidating. As the dancers performed, shifting deftly in their moccasins, the steady rumble of the drums filled the room. The scene was undoubtedly moving, enrapturing all in attendance.
Randy Gresczyk, coordinator of the American Indian Success Program here at MCTC, said that at first he was skeptical of the real benefits of adopting the new holiday here in Minneapolis, but over time he has seen its contributions to the native community.
Gresczyk, who worked as an American Indian educational liaison in K-12 schools before he came to MCTC, explained that there is currently a significant lack of mandatory education concerning Native American issues and history these days, and that has left many woefully ignorant of the concerns of native peoples. Since the local adoption of the new holiday, he has seen that “with days like Indigenous Peoples’ Day that are celebrated city- or state-wide, we can actually get more visibility and recognition of indigenous people.”
Nevertheless, in some circles there is resistance to the institution of Indigenous people’s day. Around the country there are many cities and organization that still hold Columbus Day to be a legitimate and valuable celebration. It should not surprise many that the city of Columbus, Ohio would not be willing to abolish a holiday in honor of their namesake. Even here in the Twin Cities, however, one does not have to travel far to find communities that have been stubborn in moving on from Columbus Day.
The city of Edina and the school district there are two bodies which have directly refused to replace the holiday with the more progressively minded alternative. In these instances the main component of the argument against the elimination of Columbus Day is that doing so might offend Italian Americans. There are other, more inflammatory arguments in favor of keeping Columbus Day, though the issue of Italian-American pride is most oft repeated around the country.
In recent years, more and more municipalities and states have been adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a replacement for Columbus Day. It is hard to know if this trend will continue, or if it will expand beyond the more progressively minded parts of the country. In an age where many people are calling for old monuments and memorials dedicated to an oppressive past be torn down, and an similar mass of people are calling for the preservation of those monuments with equal fervor, it seems that all one can safely assume is that the controversy surrounding the second Monday in October will continue for many years to come.