How You Can Acknowledge Indigenous Peoples' Day This Year

Grant Rindner
·8 mins read
Photo credit: Chelsea Guglielmino - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chelsea Guglielmino - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

  • Indigenous Peoples' Day 2020 falls on October 12.

  • The holiday, which was first observed in 1989, is increasingly replacing Columbus Day as America reckons with the treatment of its indigenous population.

  • Though most of the in-person celebrations have been postponed due to COVID-19, there are still plenty of ways that interested Native Americans and non-natives alike can observe.

First proposed in 1977, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has grown rapidly in the last few years, with more and more cities (and whole states) recognizing the importance of a day to acknowledge the resilience and historical abuse of Native Americans. But for Indigenous people, the holiday, which takes place the second Monday in October—this year it falls on October 12—is simply a recognition of a battle they have always faced.

“Every day is Indigenous' Peoples Day. That’s how we look at it,” Shannon O’Laughlin, Executive director for the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA), tells OprahMag.com. “Every day we are fighting to protect sovereignty and preserve culture.”

That year-round mission is recognized on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which currently shares a date with Columbus Day, the celebration of Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus voyaging from Spain to the Americas in 1492. For some Italian-Americans, Columbus Day became synonymous with their heritage. Though Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1937, it's increasingly being replaced by Indigenous Peoples' Day in more progressive areas.

As the United States reckons with the racism and marginalization that are undeniable parts of its history, it’s important to speak about the harm faced by Native Americans at the hands of colonizers. They were ravaged by diseases brought over from Europe, forced from their tribal land as the United States expanded, and even more recently sterilized in large numbers.

Still, there is pushback, particularly from some members of the Italian-American community, arguing that ending Columbus Day would be diminishing their struggle with persecution around the time of World War II. Italian Heritage Month falls in October due to Columbus Day, and many Italian-Americans see it as a broader recognition of their history. In New Haven, CT, Columbus Day has actually been renamed "Italian Heritage Day."

With 574 tribes recognized by the U.S. government, and another 300-plus sovereign tribal nations, there is no one way that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is acknowledged. But organizations like the AAIA and Redhawk Native American Arts Council recognize it as one where those who aren't Native American can be educated, culture can be shared, and historical misconceptions can be combated.

Like most holidays in 2020, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Many large group celebrations have been postponed, but online hubs for Native Americans, including digital powwows, do exist. Other ways to show your support for the Indigenous population can include attending an online class on Native American history, listening to music by a native artist, or learning about the history of the land that you occupy.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first observed in South Dakota, but has spread in recent years.

Though it was initially proposed at a U.N. conference in 1977, the first state to actually hold a form of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (called Native American Day) was South Dakota in 1989. At the time, the state’s governor, George Mickelson, was trying to spur a “Year of Reconciliation” between the native population and the white population, which had animosity towards each other.

The holiday began to spread along the West Coast and Midwest until 2015, when places all around the country began officially recognizing it. Some states, like California and Tennessee, also have a Native American Day that is celebrated in late September.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is also an important day in schools, where it can be a lens to explain the realities of colonialism for Native Americans, their perseverance through historic abuse, and their continued importance in our culture today. It’s also a time to challenge commonly held ideas about western history, particularly those related to Christopher Columbus.

Its opposition to Columbus Day has caused controversy.

For America’s Indigenous population, Christopher Columbus's voyage and the subsequent spread of colonization is not something to be celebrated. His 1492 arrival began centuries of enslavement, abuse, and forced assimilation, and for many, it’s important that Indigenous Peoples’ Day sits in direct opposition to the holiday celebrating the first people who tried to lay claim to an already occupied America.

“The holiday is in protest, in a way, of Columbus Day. It’s saying, despite Columbus, despite colonization, despite the attempted genocide of an entire hemisphere of people, we are still here,” Redhawk Cultural Director Cliff Matias, who is Quechua and Taíno, tells OprahMag.com.

Photo credit: Erik McGregor - Getty Images
Photo credit: Erik McGregor - Getty Images

Some Italian-Americans have fought doggedly to keep Columbus Day, arguing that it commemorates the struggles of Italian immigrants when they arrived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is also the only major holiday acknowledging an Italian person.

Native voices are sympathetic to the importance of acknowledging a group’s struggles, but not in a way that misrepresents history and lionizes a figure like Columbus, who to them is synonymous with harm.

“This is not about erasing history, it’s about truth telling. We should also be celebrating Italian-Americans, but we should be truthful about history,” says O’Laughlin.

Many states recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day.

States including Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Oregon observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in lieu of Columbus Day. Others have renamed the day something like Discoverers’ Day, as Hawaii opted to. Berkeley, California, was the first city to outright replace Columbus Day, doing so in 1994. And mere weeks ago, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced that his state would recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year.

While much attention is put on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October for obvious reasons, there is plenty more honoring that goes on in November, which is Native American Heritage Month.

There aren’t necessarily specific rituals associated with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In New York, Randall’s Island is frequently the site of Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations, which feature music, storytelling, dance, land acknowledgments, and food. This year, the festivities are postponed, but Matias says that there will likely be a small prayer circle held on the island.

In cities like Minneapolis and Boulder, there are parades for the holiday, as well as sunrise ceremonies, food tastings, and film festivals. These events are generally open to the public, though non-Native Americans should be cognizant that they are guests in these spaces.

Photo credit: Art Partner
Photo credit: Art Partner

Those events largely are not happening in 2020. Instead, online options include participating in the Social Distance Powwow, which has more than 200,000 Facebook members and was cited by both O’Laughlin and Matias, or the online version of the popular Santa Fe Indian Market.

Matias clarifies that because of the native population's struggles with COVID-19 and the lack of governmental support they've received, many tribes are being extremely cautious about group gatherings.

Something more individual and tactile that one can do is think about the physical space they occupy, which Native Americans do through land acknowledgments. O’Laughlin explains that tribes often felt indebted to the earth around them, and sought to safeguard it. Now, land acknowledgment statements are increasingly made to honor the Indigenous people who occupied that space, and reflect on the widespread displacement of Native Americans.

“We recognize the people who stood here and protected this land and protected the Earth before us...I think there’s a responsibility to everyone in the United States to understand what land you’re standing on and to learn about the history of the place that you occupy, to respect the ground that you walk on,” she says.

The day is a perfect opportunity to explore Native American art.

Cultural preservation is essential to Native Americans, but sometimes the outside emphasis on earlier centuries can diminish their present day creative accomplishments. O’Laughlin explains that is affected by the education system’s framing of Indigenous people as only past history.

“Partly the reason for that is when you go to public school and learn about American Indians, that education stops around 1900,” she says. “The general population doesn’t learn anything beyond 1920, so they see us as a historic, vintage picture of someone wearing a headdress. They don’t know who we are today.”

Groups like Redhawk are crucial for preservation, as they help represent and support practitioners of traditional art forms. They also offer courses in these disciplines to keep them alive. And, they work to expand the notion of native art to encompass and celebrate modern work, too.

“It seems that America has finally allowed Indigenous people to move into the 21st century,” says Matias.

He and O’Laughlin were both quick to offer suggestions of artists to check out, including genre-bending rapper Princess Nokia, Academy Award-winner Buffy Sainte-Marie, as well as groups like Peace Poets and Nahko & Medicine for the People. Other names mentioned include best-selling writer Tommy Orange, whose novel There There won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, the first Native American with that title.

Beyond exploring native culture independently, teachers and others can look to partner with a Native American organization as an educational resource, but should be aware that these groups are often inundated with requests around the holiday.

“My organization and others get bombarded with requests and inquiries for us to educate the non-native public about who Native Americans are,” says O’Laughlin.

She stresses that organizations like hers are always happy to share information and culture, but that people should also do their own research about Native American life so that they can both be better allies and appreciate the vast history and promising future of the Indigenous population.

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