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Indigenous Peoples' Day: Rediscovering American History

by Breonnah Colon - Campus Talk Editor
Tue, Oct 10th 2017 12:00 pm
Photos taken by Emma Misiaszek/PHOTO EDITOR
Native Narratives: Aggie Williams began her speech by encouraging the audience to exchange greetings with each other.
Photos taken by Emma Misiaszek/PHOTO EDITOR Native Narratives: Aggie Williams began her speech by encouraging the audience to exchange greetings with each other.
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Along with his crew, Christopher Columbus began a journey in the late 15th century to discover the “New World.” His ultimate goal was to discover a new route to Asia, which would allow for easier trade and travel between the continent and his native home of Spain. What took place in actuality was that he traveled for two months, until one of his ships, the Santa Maria, crashed near what is known today as the Caribbean, specifically the island shared currently by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which became known at the time of Columbus as Hispaniola. There he met several thousand indigenous peoples who had already been settled for generations on the land. 

Sources like Indian Country Today and Biography detail the truth. After approximately six months of communicating with the Natives, Columbus tried his best to look for riches on the land. While he came across many exotic animals and foods he had never before encountered, he could not find a sustainable source of the material he truly sought: gold. However, this did not deter Columbus from attempting to gain a title of glory and recognition from his king and queen back home. With a little manipulation and treachery, he managed to obtain what few items of gold he could from the land, along with some exotic birds and some actual Natives, whom he kidnapped. 

With these “goods” in tow, he returned to Spain and managed to convince King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, the rulers at the time, to increase their support for his false discovery and offer not only more payment for his “work,” but also more members to take the voyage with him to continue rediscovering the land that was already inhabited by dozens of tribes at the time.

The king and queen weren’t too trusting of Columbus’s word, however, their skepticism did not override their greed for both gold and power. In the attempt to reach a happy medium where they would win either way, the royal couple granted Columbus to choose from their country’s worst criminals namely rapists and murderers. With his non-ideal team of law breakers, Columbus returned back to the Caribbean and carried out one of the largest genocides in history while simultaneously building the foundation for the new world. 

Under Columbus’ authority, several hundred thousand Natives died as a result of murder, slavery, mutilation or the extreme work conditions they were forced to endure. The Europeans also brought diseases, such as syphilis, with them. The native Taino people were not equipped to deal with such diseases, so they played a role in the genocide of the Natives. By the turn of the century, it is estimated that over a million Natives lost their lives at the hands of the Europeans. An entire culture was erased, an entire people annihilated, all at the hands of someone who made a mistake and didn’t actually know where he was headed or landed.

As horrendous and bloody as this history is, it is a truth many people are not exposed to. In fact, since 1937, the United States has been celebrating Columbus Day as a federal holiday. The day is typically celebrated as a means to honor Columbus for the “discovery” of the Americas. However, recently there has been a shift in the way the day is both viewed and celebrated. In response, and as acknowledgement of the atrocities carried out by Columbus and his people, many activists, colleges, cities and even states have begun to opt out of celebrating Columbus Day and focus their attention more on the Native peoples who called the land, currently inhabited by Americans, home so long ago. 

States such as Minnesota, Vermont, Alaska and South Dakota all celebrate Native Americans’ Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 9, replacing the holiday which is typically considered to be Columbus Day by many. This celebration has been brought to The College at Brockport by the college’s American Association of University Women (AAUW), which promoted its Indigenous People’s Day celebration in honor of the the history of this nation.

Beginning with a traditional Seneca native greeting, Aggie Williams, a woman of indigenous descent, started the event by encouraging those in attendance to give “greetings and thanksgiving” to each other and loved ones as well. 

“I ask that we put our minds together tonight so that life will continue within this creation,” Williams said. “I ask that we extend greetings and thanksgiving to all the indigenous people across Mother Earth that continue on as they were originally instructed, so that life will continue within this creation.” 

Williams also acknowledged the Earth, sun and moon in her opening, explaining the connection between all people and the entirety of creation. Following the opening of greeting and thanksgiving, the event touched on the history of Christopher Columbus’ notorious reputation and faux legacy which ended with the enslavement and eventual genocide of most of the native people who originally lived in the Americas. 

Christine Zinni, a professor here at Brockport, also spoke at the event. Zinni explained that Columbus gained popularity as a result of Italian American immigrants yearning for social acceptance in the early 19 century. Since Columbus was of Italian descent, his reputation was widely used as a way to integrate acceptance of Italians within American society. 

“Italian American organizations fell behind [supporting Columbus Day] because they wanted something, a figurehead that would represent them in some way,” Zinni said.

This hunger for acceptance caused Italian Americans to ignore the brutal history of their source of pride. However, it allowed the segregation and oppression of indigenous peoples to continue into the modern day. 

Jules Steckman, a member of AAUW, put the event together with the hope of shedding more light on the history and culture of indigenous people within the community. While Steckman saw the college’s efforts to be inclusive, she did not see sufficient acknowledgement of the nation’s natives. Being a person of Native descent herself, she decided to introduce the culture to the college with the help of her club.

“I haven’t seen many events targeted at or showcasing Native Americans or their culture,” Steckman said. “I really admire Brockport’s commitment to showcasing diversity, different points of view and working together with the other members of AAUW and voices for progressive change. We have put together an event that, hopefully, does just that.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day illuminates an aspect of history that is too frequently left in the dark. By giving the voices of those who are hardly even acknowledged the right they have been deprived of, to speak on behalf of themselves, their culture and their history, AAUW has shown the shift in social consciousness taking place across the nation. Perhaps one day Indigenous People’s Day will be nationally celebrated and those of Native descent will finally be given the respect and honor they were stripped of generations ago.

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