When I was a young girl, one of only a handful of Native Americans at my school in Syracuse, NY, I never questioned celebrating Columbus Day. My school’s curriculum didn’t help. It wouldn’t be until college that I began to understand there was more to the story than a heroic man sailing the ocean blue in the year 1492.
500 years after Columbus’ initial encounter with the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, in 1992, organizers in my college city of Berkeley, CA were protesting the commemoration. For the first time in my life, we were hearing about Columbus, not as an explorer, but as the man who encountered the Taino and Arawak. He returned their hospitality with violence, coercing them into slavery and forced labor, and ultimately, embarking on a genocidal campaign. These crimes even shocked Columbus’ contemporaries, resulting in his imprisonment and removal as governor of the West Indies.
This story shocked me and many people in my city and college. Thousands of activists across the country, and local organizers used this account to convince City Council to stop celebrating the explorer, who had committed such heinous crimes, and mark the day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. This was my first real lesson in how developing a more honest and nuanced understanding of history can change a community, and a nation’s, perspective.
Each year, more towns, cities and states are observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of, or in conjunction with, Columbus Day, and for the first time this year, a Presidential Proclamation Visit disclaimer page was issued as well. I am proud to see governments, institutions and organizations participate in land acknowledgements and be inclusive of the diverse original peoples of this land, both historically and in the present. This push to have more accurate and holistic representation in our holidays naturally trickles down to how we teach in our schools and how we educate our public. To honor and acknowledge our Arawak and Taino ancestors, and their descendants, we must keep up our momentum by acknowledging the full history of our country. Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ day is not a means to erase history or to dismiss Christopher Columbus. Rather, it is a means to fully acknowledge our history, and to recognize the Arawak and Taino people who have been so long minimized or omitted in our understanding of Columbus’ first journey to the Americas.
Change starts with each one of us. If you want to learn more about the History of Columbus Day and the Arawak & Taino tribes, it’s never too late to start. I encourage you to check out ”Rethinking How We Celebrate American History published in the Smithsonian Magazine last year. You can also consider attending Youth in Action: Indigenous People’s Day — Black Indigenous Youth Advancing Social Justice, hosted by the National Museum of the American Indian on Monday, October 11. There are Indigenous People’s Day celebrations happening across the nation on Monday, and perhaps even in your local community. Try to attend a celebration in a safe way.
No matter how you choose to observe this year, I hope you can reflect on what is being taught to this generation of children. Will those lessons make them more compassionate than stories you were taught? How we celebrate this day, defines how we understand our past. And, how we understand our history defines how our nation moves forward into the future. I ask that you join me in including Indigenous peoples to our celebration of America’s history on October 11.
Michelle Sauve is a citizen of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and currently serving as acting commissioner for the Administration for Native Americans.