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Goodbye Columbus — Hello Indigenous Peoples Day

American Indians
Indigenous Peoples Day honors the history of the continent's original inhabitants as well as the living culture of modern Native Americans. Library of Congress/Getty Images

Accused of crimes ranging from slave-trading to genocide of indigenous peoples, Christopher Columbus has lost favor with many Americans. In 1977, just five years after Columbus Day became a national holiday in the U.S., participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed Indigenous Peoples Day as a replacement.

It took some years to catch on. In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to ditch Columbus Day for a holiday honoring Native Americans, and in 1992, the famously progressive city of Berkeley, California became the first to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in protest of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World.

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Now, at least 14 states (plus Washington, D.C.) and more than 130 American cities have either dropped Columbus Day entirely or co-celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October. (Hawaii calls it Discoverers Day and honors the Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii.)

But what is Indigenous Peoples Day exactly, and how can Americans both honor the troubled history of the continent's original inhabitants while celebrating the living culture and contributions of modern Native Americans?

We spoke with Reneé Gokey, an education specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., about the opportunity that Indigenous Peoples Day gives all Americans to not only take an honest look at Native American history, but also to celebrate today's diverse Native cultures through their art, literature, film and food. (Gokey is an enrolled member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and is also Shawnee, Sac and Fox Nation, and Myaamia from her paternal grandparents.) Here are some of her suggestions:

Look for Histories That Includes Native Voices

Growing up, many Americans learned about Native Americans only in history class. Starting with Columbus, history lessons in school typically took on a Eurocentric perspective of "discovery" and Manifest Destiny, not the violent colonization and forced removal experienced by Native peoples.

One of Gokey's projects at the National Museum of the American Indian is Native Knowledge 360°, an interactive educational resource for teachers and students that explores key moments in U.S. history from an indigenous perspective. For example, what does it mean to remove a people? Or were treaties meant to last forever?

"Teaching more accurate and complete narratives that include these different perspectives is key to rethinking our history," says Gokey. "But we rarely hear Native perspectives in media, classrooms and books. The silences speak loudly and they really discount the incredible resilience and innovation of Native cultures."

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Promote Indigenous Education in the Present Tense

According to a study of U.S. educational standards from kindergarten through high school, the vast majority (87 percent) of lessons that include Native Americans take place in a pre-1900 context. When indigenous people are exclusively talked about in the past tense, it creates a false narrative that Native peoples and their cultures are dead or irrelevant.

For example, if you've been taught the disturbing truth about Columbus' treatment of the indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean, you'll know that 90 percent of the Taíno were killed from a combination of slave labor and European diseases by 1540, less than 50 years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola. But that's not where the Taíno story ends.

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"The Taíno people are alive today," says Gokey. "So many of our textbooks say that all the Native people in the Caribbean died off, but they continue to live in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean and the U.S."

Seek Out Connections With Native Culture

If you're lucky enough to live somewhere that recognizes and celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day, attend cultural events and festivals that showcase Native histories, art, dance and food. Sadly, many of these events have been canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gokey says there are still plenty of ways to forge personal connections with indigenous history and culture either online or in your own home:

  1. Prepare and eat Native American foods. "Consider buying food from Native food purveyors," says Gokey, many of which sell their products online. Red Lake Nation Foods is a native-owned company famous for its wild rice. Or try some ancient tepary beans from Ramona Farms. If you're looking for recipes, pick up a copy of "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," winner of the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook.
  2. Support Native artists. "Art is a way that contemporary Native people are using the past to connect with their vibrancy today," says Gokey. And while most of the annual Indian Art Markets have been canceled in 2020, many of them have gone online, where you can both see and buy works by Native artists. Eighth Generation is an indigenous-owned company that sells beautiful blankets, clothing, jewelry and really cool phone cases.
  3. Watch movies and read books by indigenous filmmakers and authors. Gokey is a fan of the Vision Maker Media Film Festival, an annual showcase of Native American movies that also went online this year. And Social Justice Books has a curated list of Native American books that range from toddler-appropriate board books to high school-age novels. A great primer on Native American history for both teens and adults is "An Indigneous People's History of the United States" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
  4. Hear from Native activists. The National Museum of the American Indian is hosting a virtual event on Oct. 12, 2020 at 1 p.m. ET called "Indigenous Peoples Day: Mascots, Monuments and Memorialization." The event features a panel of young Native activists talking about how memories of the past influence the current conversation about racial and social justice in America. You can attend the live event online.

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