Indigenous Peoples’ Day, held on the second Monday of October, represents a day of honor and celebration for Indigenous Peoples and their resilience in preserving their culture and community. It is a way to commemorate all of the people who have survived and thrived despite the attempts to stop them and to recognize the beauty of oft-marginalized and scorned cultures. This day recognizes and amplifies the voices of Indigenous People across the nation and seeks to reclaim history as well as celebration for First Nations Peoples, rather than the false history that surrounds the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus.
On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus’s voyage reached land, and he and his men became the first people to discover the United States, proving that the Earth is round. Or so the story goes. The first place Columbus actually landed was an island that is now part of the Bahamas; during this voyage, he also traveled to present-day Cuba and an island he named Hispaniola (now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Moreover, most people at the time already knew that the Earth was round. At the top of the list of many myths spread about the “successes” of Christopher Columbus was his “discovery of America.”
It is impossible to discover land on which people are already living, and there were thousands of Indigenous people living on all of the islands Columbus went to. There were many atrocities brought by Columbus and his men including the kidnapping, enslavement, and torturing of thousands of Taíno people living in Cuba and Hispaniola. He stripped their land of its gold, and when people were unable to mine as much as he wanted, he cut off their hands. He and his crew sexually assaulted Indigenous women and young girls. Many people died either as a direct result of his brutality and violence or by suicide to avoid further abuse. In addition to disease, this was a significant reason why the Indigenous population dropped so much following his arrival in the Americas; though there is controversy over the use of the term, many consider it to be a genocide.
Contrary to popular belief, criticisms of Columbus are nothing new. In response to his brutality (and his general mismanagement of the Spanish colony), he was arrested for his poor management of the colony and brutal treatment of the Taíno people. and sent back to Spain for punishment following his third voyage. Despite his prosecution, all charges were cleared and released because of the profit that he brought to Spain. He was allowed to return for a fourth voyage, but he was not allowed to be governor, as people did not trust him to fairly rule over either the Spanish or the Indigenous Peoples in the colony. (For more information about Columbus, check out Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus by James Loewen.) Columbus never set foot in the United States, but he did set a precedent of exploiting and abusing Indigenous people which would continue throughout the Americas.
Land and resource theft, enslavement, abuse, exploitation, and murder continued throughout the Americas, and their effects continue to be seen today. Most noticeably, many Indigenous Peoples have been stripped of their land and forced to live on reservations far from their original homes. The land that all non-Indigenous Americans (and Canadians) live on is stolen, and recognizing this is a crucial step towards justice. This is why land acknowledgements, in which a person shares which group the land they are on originally belonged to, are useful ways to start events. For example, I currently live on land that was home to the Munsee Lenape people. (To learn about the place where you live, visit this site.)
Standing against previous theft is especially important as the American government attempts to interfere with Indigenous land for projects of, at best, questionable value. For example, construction has begun on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux people have said will likely contaminate their environment through a high risk of oil spills. In addition, the Trump administration is trying to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall so that it would divide land on which the Tohono O’odham people have been living for centuries (Read STAND’s earlier blog on the O’odham people). While they have objected and protested, they will need support from the broader public to maintain full access to their homes and keep their communities connected. The continued colonization of Indigenous land is not solely perpetuated by government institutions. In Hawai’i, for example, scientists have placed telescopes all over Mauna Kea, which is sacred land for many Indigenous people. There are far too many examples to list, so it is imperative that we keep seeking out information and be aware of the history of the land we seek to use.
The removal of Indigenous Peoples from their homes and their relegation to distant reservations on infertile land has also resulted in a massive loss of culture, as many peoples’ ways of life were heavily influenced by their environments. Other attempts throughout American history to forcibly “assimilate” Indigenous people to American culture have also put many traditions and languages in danger of disappearing.
Beyond the threats to Indigenous culture, colonization and exploitation have led to serious consequences for the well-being of Indigenous individuals today. According to Indian Health Services (IHS), Indigenous people have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years shorter than that of other Americans. This is a result of having higher risk factors, lack of access to healthcare, and discrimination in the medical field. The introduction of alcohol by Europeans, combined with intergenerational trauma, has led Indigenous people to have higher rates of overdoses and mental illness, often resulting in death by suicide. Moreover, systemic racism has institutionalized poverty in Indigenous communities, with a poverty rate, at 25.4%, more than double the national rate. This means that many people lack adequate access to food and running water, which is key to preventing chronic illnesses and disease outbreaks. It also makes it much harder to afford healthcare. While IHS is supposed to provide medical care for Indigenous peoples, they are severely underfunded — with clinics few and far between and many of the clinics that do exist lacking key features like MRI machines and emergency departments. For those Indigenous individuals who can access care, the quality is often lowered as compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. In fact, 23% of Indigenous people have reported facing discrimination in the medical field.
This type of racism is not limited to the United States. This was made very visible after a video of the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman in Canada, spread around the Internet. In the video, nurses were heard screaming racial slurs and taunts at Echaquan. Her family has also said that nurses gave her too much morphine, a substance to which she had told hospital staff she was allergic.
While tragic, Echaquan’s death is not surprising. Indigenous women are murdered at a rate up to 10 times higher than other people; 84.3% have experienced violence at some point during their lives. On October 10, two U.S. bills, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, were signed into law to address this problem, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Until people learn about the problem and actively work to remove their prejudices, Indigenous women will continue to be put in greater danger.
Changing our understanding of Indigenous communities will take work, but there are some easy steps people can take to start. First, stop appropriating Indigenous cultures: Indigenous people are not Halloween costumes, and their religious and spiritual traditions are not aesthetics (see: “spirit animals” and headdresses). If you want to appreciate Indigenous culture — their jewelry, their artwork, or their traditions — talk to actual Indigenous people. Support Indigenous artists, and educate yourself with work by Indigenous authors (check out this list for suggestions). Second, realize that Indigenous Peoples are not a monolith. While they face much of the same discrimination, every nation has its own language, customs, and way of life that contribute to a unique cultural identity. Third, don’t lie and say that you’re Indigenous if you aren’t. It’s not a quirk; it’s a heritage and identity.
Fully decolonizing our mindsets will take a lot more work. Around the world, people’s understandings of “civilization” and propriety have been fundamentally shaped by colonial ideals. There is not enough room here to explain all of the intersectionalities, but we must keep doing the work to recognize the contributions of Indigenous Peoples and protect their rights. STAND’s work internationally often involves atrocities committed against Indigenous Peoples who are vulnerable to attack from colonizing governments and groups. Continuing to learn and change the way we view institutions and practices we view as the default will help create a more just and fair world.
For ways to join the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebrations, visit: https://rb.gy/ewddhf
For petitions regarding the adoption of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in your county visit: https://rb.gy/wqzxvp
Mira Mehta is a student at Westfield High School and a co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee. Prior to this, she was the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead and served on the STAND Communications Task Force for two years.