Reclaiming History: Why We Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day

by Matt Remle

Columbus Day as a national, and international, phenomenon reflects a much larger dynamic that promotes myriad myths and historical lies that have been used through the ages to dehumanize Indians, justifying the theft of our lands, the attempted destruction of our nations and the genocide against our people.” —Russell Means & Glenn Morris

It should be understood, with little explanation, why the federal holiday Columbus Day is so deeply problematic. Columbus is celebrated by Euro colonizers for having “discovered” the New World. Of course, Indigenous inhabitants, whom have lived in the so-called “New World” since time immemorial, would greatly dispute that Columbus discovered anything.

When Columbus did stumble upon the occupied shores of the New World, it is estimated that more than 100 million Native peoples lived in the lands that stretch from present day Alaska down to present day Chile.

Upon discovery of gold on the lands of the Taino and Arawak peoples, Columbus embarked on a ruthless campaign, backed by the Spanish, of colonization, genocide, and mass slavery.

One need only go so far as to read the writings of Columbus, or members of his crew, to gain insight into the brutal and horrific campaign of genocide and slavery being inflicted upon the Indigenous populations of the Caribbean Islands.

“While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful woman, whom the Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked — as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought she had been brought up in a school for whores.” —Michele de Cuneo, who participated in Columbus’s second expedition to the Americas

By 1548, it is estimated that 99 percent of the Taino Indigenous population had perished due to the genocide brought on by the Columbus expedition.

More broadly, the Columbus voyage would have far reaching impact on the settler colonization of the America’s as he, and future colonizers, sailed with the backing of the Discovery Doctrine issued by Pope Alexander VI.

The Discovery Doctrine “granted” European Christians the right to seek out and claim lands inhabited by non-European non-Christians.

when Columbus sailed west across the Sea of Darkness in 1492 — with the express understanding that he was authorized to ‘take possession’ of any lands he ‘discovered’ that were ‘not under the dominion of any Christian rulers’ — he and the Spanish sovereigns of Aragon and Castile were following an already well-established tradition of ‘discovery’ and conquest. Indeed, after Columbus returned to Europe, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal document, the bull Inter Cetera of May 3, 1493, ‘granting’ to Spain — at the request of Ferdinand and Isabella — the right to conquer the lands which Columbus had already found, as well as any lands which Spain might ‘discover’ in the future.

In the Inter Cetera document, Pope Alexander stated his desire that the ‘discovered’ people be ‘subjugated and brought to the faith itself.’ By this means, said the pope, the ‘Christian Empire’ would be propagated. When Portugal protested this concession to Spain, Pope Alexander stipulated in a subsequent bull — issued May 4, 1493 — that Spain must not attempt to establish its dominion over lands which had already ‘come into the possession of any Christian lords.’ Then, to placate the two rival monarchs, the pope drew a line of demarcation between the two poles, giving Spain rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe, and Portugal over the other.

In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed ‘ultimate dominion’ over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that – upon ‘discovery’ – the Indians had lost ‘their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,’ and only retained a right of ‘occupancy’ in their lands. In other words, Indians nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.” —Steve Newcomb

The legacy of the Columbus voyage lives on and is felt by Indigenous populations to this day.

The origins of the organizing efforts to abolish Columbus Day and rename it Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first documented back in 1977, when members of the International Indian Treaty Council, the American Indian Movement and other Indigenous activists from North, Central and South America presented the idea to the United Nations at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas.

South Dakota became to first non-Federal jurisdiction to replace the Columbus holiday when it adopted Native American Day after pressure from Lakota activists. Berkeley, California, became the second in 1992 when it adopted the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution in response to the 500-year celebration of the Columbus voyage that was taking place in San Francisco at the time.

In 2014, after years of local protests and lobbying local government officials, Seattle became the first major city to adopt an Indigenous Peoples’ Day after Councilmember Kshama Sawant agreed to sponsor a resolution I wrote calling for the second Monday in October to be re-named as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Today, more than 80 cities, states, universities, and the Island Nation of Trinidad and Tobago have passed similar resolutions.

Why we celebrate

Since 1492, the Indigenous populations of the Americas have not only faced settler colonization, but endure history’s greatest known genocide. The Native population within what are now the colonial borders of the United States dropped from an estimated 20 million pre-contact to just 300,000 by the end of the 1800s.

Yet, despite the Euro colonizers greatest efforts at mass genocide, disposition, slavery, and assimilation, we as Native peoples are still here. Native communities continue to fight to protect the land, air, and waters. We continue to live instructions, traditional roles and responsibilities, which have been passed down from our origins as a peoples since the beginning of creation. We continue to sing our songs, relearn our languages and express ourselves through our dances, cultures, and humor. We continue to teach the world lessons on have to live and engage with one another from the Iroquois Nation and democracy to the Lakota and Dakota and the teachings of Mitakuye Oyasin (we are all related) and Mni Wiconi (water is life).

While the establishment of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in pursuit of the abolishment of Columbus Day, will not end settler colonization nor erase the mass genocide inflicted upon Native populations, it will help in chipping away at it. Our stories, lives, cultures, histories, and voices matter.

A couple years after we got Indigenous Peoples’ Day established, I was giving a presentation to a school district just south of Seattle on tribal history, culture, and governance and the need for it to be incorporated into classrooms. Afterwards, an elementary school librarian approached me and shared that she had watched the battle to get the day established and the racial ugliness that was brought on by pro-Columbus day supporters. She said that she was greatly moved by how we conducted ourselves in the face of such racial hostility. She shared that in the days leading up to Columbus Day, she went around the library and removed all the Columbus books that had been put up in prominent displays and replaced them with books about Native peoples written by Native authors.

Perhaps others too are ready for a different narrative as well. One that celebrates, honors and uplifts the original peoples of the Makoche Waste, the beautiful lands, now called the Americas.

Mitakuye Oyasin

Matt Remle (Hunkpapa Lakota) lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and three children.  He works for the Office of Indian Education in the Marysville School District.  He is the editor and writer for the on-line Native news site Last Real Indians and LRInspire.  

He is the author of Seattle’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution, Seattle’s resolution calling on Congress to engage in reconciliation with Tribe’s over the Boarding School Era policies, Seattle’s resolution to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline and Seattle’s ordinance to divest from Wells Fargo due to their financing of the Dakota Access pipelines.  He is the co-founder of the group Mazaska Talks.  

In 2014, Remle was awarded Seattle’s Individual Human Rights Leader award.  In 2017, he was awarded the National Indian Education Association’s Educator of the Year, The Billy Frank Jr. Natural Resource Protection Award and named one of Seattle’s Most Influential People.

Featured Photo by Jonathan Lee.