This week, we got our first day off of the semester for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, something that excites me for two reasons. First, I love an extra day off to catch up on my work and watch a movie. Second, and more importantly, we are nationally celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.
I hear the eye rolls from people all over campus already and while, yes, it is not the most pressing issue in America today, it matters. For hundreds of years, we have celebrated a national day dedicated to a man who colonized, brutalized, raped and tortured natives. These facts are indisputable by anyone, including Columbus himself who described these acts in his own writings.
While it is easy to say that there are no modern effects of Columbus, there are many things that are an effect of him. Columbus did nothing that merits a celebration for him; he did not find new land nor did he make any new accomplishments.
The land was already settled by Natives for thousands of years before Columbus arrived, and they had a culture of their own that was functioning. As for the fact that he accomplished an “unprecedented” journey for the time, which has been disputed by many historians who have found evidence of Scandinavian travelers visiting North America in the 10th century.
His acts still reverberate today, from historical slaughter and attempted genocide against Indigenous Americans to indoctrination schools for to the modern-day disparities that Indigenous communities face. Today, Indigenous Americans have higher rates of alcohol and gambling addiction because of these historical conditions.
To celebrate him is to celebrate his actions and their modern effects.
So, when I read an email from President Marc Parlange this past Monday in which he talked about the importance of acknowledging our land on campus is Native land. While this acknowledgment does not undo years of actions that have hurt and disrupted Native American communities, it is a place to start.
Luckily, this email highlighted some steps the University has taken to help Native communities tangibly. One of the most important programs that began last semester was the partnership between the University of Rhode Island and the Tomaquag Museum to bring them to the URI campus. The University has also apparently instated a program starting this year that allows Narragansett Tribe members to attend URI on a scholarship.
This is a larger issue than just Columbus and Indigenous peoples. This problem of celebrating historical figures and ideas that have hurt minority groups, such as the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments and the glorification of figures that were racist or otherwise harmful.
There has been a national reckoning with confederate monuments in recent years, and there has been a lot of backlash coming from many conservatives that want to keep these statues. The monuments were historically made to intimidate people of color and to make sure that they knew that the South was still racist.
Small acts like these have a major impact on minorities within America. Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day as opposed to Columbus Day may not matter to you personally, but I can promise you that it means a lot to someone else. If you don’t want to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day next year, you can just go to work.