On Monday, Oct. 11, all of Oregon will celebrate a new day of remembrance for the first time: Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Thanks to a bill that passed the state legislature last spring, Oregon became the 11th state to formally recognize this day on the second Monday of October each year. It replaces Columbus Day, in a formal acknowledgement that the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America is historically inaccurate, racist, and harmful.
In honor of this new day, plus Native American Heritage Month coming up in November, we wanted to recognize and honor the history and modern-day contributions of Native American peoples.
What’s Wrong with Columbus Day
The Christopher Columbus story that has long been taught in American schools is deeply problematic. First, Columbus did not “discover” America — Indigenous peoples were living and thriving here for thousands of years before he arrived. Second, Columbus and his party subjugated the Native peoples they met to slavery, violence, genocide, and a host of other atrocities. This video brings light to their actions, through the words of Columbus (warning: it contains references to violent sexual assault): https://youtu.be/Nd8K7GGt2YU
Thirdly, the Columbus Day holiday itself was something created by President Benjamin Harrison to placate the Italian government after a horrific incident in 1892 where 11 Italian American immigrants were lynched by white people in New Orleans. No one was held accountable for the killings.
The Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day
It’s important that we take time to learn about the true history of Indigenous cultures and the atrocities perpetrated against them. It’s also important that we celebrate the positive contributions of Native cultures and the pride that Native people feel about their heritage.
Here are a few resources to help you learn more:
- “We Shall Remain,” documentary series from the PBS series American Experience”
- “How the U.S. stole thousands of Native American children,” by Vox
- “Broken Treaties,” PBS documentary on the history of Oregon’s tribes
Perspectives from Youth, Staff, and Volunteers
We also asked some of our Native American youth, staff, and volunteers for their views on the new day. Not surprisingly, their feelings were mixed.
Krisleen, 18, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, youth at Oak Creek:
“Columbus took a lot away from Native Americans. We used to not do alcohol or drugs back in the day, but then we had to step into the new world of the white way. We got drugs, we did alcohol, we started having family problems, and we were no longer doing the things that we used to do.
“We have a heritage and there’s a lot to learn. I haven’t learned all of it. I don’t got all the answers. I just know that I’m still learning.”
Nick Hall, Comanche, long-time volunteer at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility:
Nick Hall, along with MaryAnne Tinoco (known as Grandma Mary), has run numerous groups and mentored countless youth at Rogue Valley.
“It’s nice that we’re finally being honored with a day. But to me it’s meaningless as long as things continue the way they do. We’ve got murdered and missing women that no one seems to care about. … It’s like we’re not a part of anything. We’re looked on as a problem, but in reality we’re the solution.
“I want to give these young people every opportunity to flourish. This generation is supposed to change things, so it’s important that they learn correctly their heritage and the power that they actually have.”
Cylas, 18, Yakima and Colville, youth at MacLaren:
“People should know some of the tragic history that we’ve had. When I was in the Thrive conference (a conference brought to OYA’s Native American youth by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations), I heard about a whole bunch of unmarked graves up in Canada. I thought that was pretty messed up. I feel like (Indigenous Peoples’ Day) is a good thing.”
Manny, 15, Klamath and Chippewa, youth at MacLaren:
“We’re sitting here (in Native American group at MacLaren) and learning about our tribes and what we did. We watched some movies and talked about stuff that’s happened to women and about slavery, what (colonizers) did to us. … I think people should learn about our history and what we had to go through because of what people did to us — slavery, torture, murder, and taking land away from us.”
Tonya Bishop-Gustin, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, instructional assistant with special education, Lord High School at MacLaren:
“I look at it through the viewpoint of trauma, of what the young men in this facility have gone through with their own families. How do we address that trauma and teach them that their culture can be a celebration? Some of the young men I work with acknowledge that they’re Native, but they don’t know what that means or where that pride comes from. Having an Indigenous Peoples’ Day can help them start learning and celebrating that heritage.”
Derwin Decker, Modoc and Klamath Tribes, Native American services coordinator for OYA:
“It’s an honor but at the same time it’s very sad because of the history and the injustices that continue to happen to us: going to a restaurant and not getting served at all, going out to buy a new car and having the salespeople not talk to me on the lot. … This (holiday) is one step in the right direction of recognizing Native people. But it’s not the ultimate.”
A.J., 20, Tribes of Siletz, youth at MacLaren:
“Doing the Native American groups at MacLaren has helped me connect spiritually with my ancestors. I also got taught about respecting women. Mother Nature is how I see women, too — they give birth, they give life. I learned also to try harder to get involved, learning about my culture.
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a good idea. Our ancestors fought and they tried to keep their land, and there’s gonna be Natives today who are proud of that. But because of all that stuff that happened to Native Americans, many turn to alcohol or drugs, and that impacted the Native culture in a really negative way. I feel like (the holiday) is a good thing because Natives have always been in the shadows, but now they’ll be out of the shadow of Columbus Day.”
Leslie Riggs, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, OYA tribal liaison and Native American program coordinator:
“For me, the importance is about celebrating and remembering all the things that our ancestors had to go through, but also all of the successes and great things they did that kept us going. We’re still able to be here as strong as we are because of that. We raise our hands to our ancestors and are so indebted to them for maintaining our culture and heritage, even when it was against the law, and they could go to jail for something as simple as dancing or playing a drum together. … I’m proud every day, but I get to be extra proud on this day.”
I would like to offer a big thank you to these folks for sharing their perspectives with all of us. And I urge all of you to take some time on Oct. 11 and throughout November to learn more about the real history of America’s Indigenous communities, while also honoring the important role they continue to play in our culture today.