Perils of Indigenous People’s Day

tags: Columbus Day, Christopher Columbus, Indigenous Peoples Day

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, 2016).

In 1887, Boston erected a statue in honor of Viking explorer Leif Ericson. With the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage fast approaching, the city’s Protestant leaders worried about crediting the discovery of America to a Catholic from Southern Europe. So they came up with a new hero, who sailed to the New World from Iceland some 500 years before Columbus did.

But the people who really discovered America arrived many years before that, crossing the Bering Strait from Asia. They suffered untold horrors at the hands of the newcomers, who enslaved and murdered them. That’s why four states and a growing number of communities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, calling our attention to the crimes of the European colonizers.

If we leave it at that, however, we condescend to Native Americans in the guise of commemorating them. Of course everyone should know about the depredations they experienced. But if we portray them simply as victims, we rob them of their humanity as much as Columbus did.

Indigenous People’s Day dates to 1990, when a conference of native peoples in the Americas announced plans to protest the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival. Two years later, on the eve of the anniversary, Berkeley become the first U.S. community to reject Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day. It resolved to remember the horrors against Native Americans as well as their ongoing struggles for justice.

Too often, though, the second part gets left out. We all learn that native peoples were robbed of their land and livelihoods, but we don’t find out what they did afterward. They’re reduced to cartoons in headdress, tragic figures who populate our past rather than our present. ...

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