Our life is our religion, and our teaching. If we are relocated by force, we will die slowly. The people would not be in balance with Mother Earth and Sky Father and the spiritual people … We belong here.” I identify with these words spoken by a Navajo woman, an elder named Mary Begay. I identify with the struggle to maintain balance and harmony because they will keep me and my people healthy and strong. I identify with the land to which Mary ties herself and her sense of balance. I identify with her voice, but it represents only one voice. Mine is only one voice. From her corner of these lands, surrounded by the Atlantic and the Pacific and by Mexico and Canada, Mary Begay tells her story of resistance to cultural assimilation and the theft of her homelands. Indigenous Peoples Day — celebrated in October of every year — is a celebration of voices like Mary Begay’s, voices that come from indigenous peoples all over the country and the world, voices that echo her cry: “We belong here.”
The square on your calendar representing Oct. 9 of this year bears the heading Columbus Day in recognition of Columbus’ landing in San Salvador in 1492. History offers many versions of the narrative describing how and why the country we now call America came to be. Maybe you’ve heard that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Maybe you’ve heard that the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the English stumbled upon a land of vast emptiness, a wilderness, ripe for cultivation and “civilization.” Maybe you’ve even heard that there were in fact thriving agricultural communities covering these lands years before the accidental arrival of Columbus. Maybe you’ve heard about the genocide. Whatever you’ve heard, you’re probably not getting the whole story. The stories told by Native peoples are seemingly infinite, they span centuries and geographies and they are each vital to the heritage and history of North America.
European explorers brutalized and destroyed indigenous civilizations. Many of our ancestors suffered assault to their traditions; they suffered genocide, both cultural and literal. Recognizing this, both Natives and non-natives across the country have chosen not to celebrate Columbus Day. Members of Yale’s Native American community choose instead to remember our indigenous ancestors and the contributions they have made to our modern world. We hope to remind people that indigenous cultures across the Americas endure and are thriving today. We ask that people reevaluate their reasons for celebrating Columbus Day, the residue of a historically biased discourse which claims that Europeans could somehow “discover” a land which was already home to millions. Finally, we challenge people to consider that it was this “discovery” that led to the European diseases and warfare that inflicted so much pain and suffering on the Native inhabitants of North America.
On Indigenous Peoples Day, though our stories are not one, our voices are united. They are united in remembrance of vibrant cultures that once thrived and in celebration of the many that still thrive today. Each member of the Native community at Yale has a story about what this day means, but with one voice, we ask the rest of the Yale community to join with us in celebration of Native culture and resilience. In our remembrance and in our celebration we hope to recognize all indigenous cultures and experiences but we stress that we do not represent every voice. Natives are not one people, we are many. We are unique and diverse but we are united in friendship and in understanding. Celebrate with us. We are still here, and we belong.
Allison Neswood is a sophomore in Trumbull College.