Last Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day—a relatively new holiday, created to rightfully challenge the tradition of Columbus Day. Why replace Columbus Day? The idea is simple: Christopher Columbus was a marauding murderer who brutalized and enslaved the indigenous peoples he came across in the Americas. He was but one in a long line of reaving conquistadors, some of which were so evil that they were disowned by their own governments, and we now know he was not even the first European to reach the Americas. Such a man should not be celebrated—no matter how annoying, right-wing pundits excuse his actions or sling whataboutisms—and the usurpation of his holiday by a celebration of indigenous people everywhere is a direct, joyous form of justice and righteous vengeance.
But there’s also a problem with how this has all played out. How many people cared about Columbus Day in any capacity beyond possibly getting the day off of work? It’s doubtful that many did, and only white-collar workers are getting it off anyway. Even though students get a respite from classes, there is still work to be done. Columbus Day was boring and thoughtless as a concept, and was mostly just an excuse for the privileged to get the day off. By contrast, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is supposed to be a day for reflection, thoughtfulness and direct acknowledgment of indigenous peoples and cultures across the globe. Yet, because it is often seen as a simple re-brand of Columbus Day, the idea that it should be notable at all; that it should be reflected upon; that it is worth engaging with, gets totally lost for many people living, working and going to school in this country.
This is a shame. Of course, people who identify as indigenous in some manner are likely very aware of their history and reflect upon it every day. But this holiday is primarily meant to encourage people who do need reminding to reflect on not only indigenous history, but also to celebrate and respect contemporary indigenous cultures and people. The intent is to critically engage with the subject, not simply acknowledge it at a surface level for a quick moment. In areas like eastern Massachusetts, where there is not as much of an Indigenous American presence, it can be very easy to talk about indigenous cultures as an aspect of history, and to habitually neglect the subject for those who aren’t a direct part of Indigenous American culture.
That being said, there is still a presence of indigenous people and culture in our area. The Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness is not too far away from UMass Boston, in Danvers, and offers many programs, resources and events to both indigenous people and the general public. One of the coolest things they do is run programs that teach children with Indigenous American heritage about their cultures and offer cultural gatherings with activities they can take part in. There is also the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in New Hampshire, which I highly, highly recommend visiting. The Museum of Fine Arts even puts on occasional events which include Native American speakers.
Here’s the thing though—Indigenous Americans aren’t the only kind of indigenous people! I think that Americans tend to forget this. UMass Boston is one of the most culturally diverse public universities in the country, and there are many students and professors here who might identify as indigenous to their country of cultural origin. We must acknowledge these people as well; after all, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is supposed to celebrate all indigenous cultures across the globe.
But honestly, this is neither here nor there. We shouldn’t need to be in direct contact with indigenous people to critically engage with the tenants of Indigenous Peoples’ Day at any level. And truthfully, a single holiday shouldn’t be the only impetus to do so, either. So, I highly encourage students to engage with the realities and existence of indigenous people around the world. Look out for and listen to people with indigenous roots in your classes or clubs, and talk with them. Go attend an event at MCNAA or visit Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum. And next year, when Indigenous Peoples’ Day comes around, make it an occasion to reflect on what that means.