Commentary

10.10.14

Whose History: In Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

And when he landed in the Caribbean, he enslaved and killed the native Taíno people in his search for gold. Fifty years after his arrival, the densely populated villages and cultural legacies were all but destroyed.  And so begins the history of “discovery” in the Americas.

Yet this piece of history is left out of the rhymes, and Christopher Columbus is celebrated with a federal holiday on the second Monday of October. In creating this hero, a legacy of atrocities stretching from the Taíno to the Trail of Tears gets pushed aside.

Despite this legacy of discrimination against native peoples, some refuse to let this history be ignored. Last Monday, Native American activists successfully pressed the Seattle City Council to declare the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day.Seattle has now joined Minneapolis and the state of South Dakota in acknowledging links between our past and present-day struggles.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant stated “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination, and poverty that indigenous communities face to this day.”

The struggle over history also continues in Colorado, where hundreds of students walked out of class last week over proposed changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum. The new proposal emphasized “patriotism and … the benefits of the free-enterprise system” and cautioned that lessons should not “encourage or condone civil disorder.”

Students immediately cried foul. They called out from the picket lines that history contains valuable lessons for building a better world than the one we read about in the textbooks. By erasing disorder, discrimination, and atrocities from our memories, we open ourselves to inviting them back in.

The actions of these students and activists remind us that history is not static, but ours to create. Looking at a past of racial injustice provides a critical perspective for seeing better futures. Hopefully this year, the second Monday in October will be a chance to look at history in a different way.

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