Indigenous Peoples’ Day commemorates the resilience of indigenous peoples worldwide, throughout campaigns of exploitation, prejudice, and outright genocide. But this year, you might know it as something different: the 518th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in San Salvador. Columbus Day glorifies a history of injustice and historical fallacy; Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a chance to reevaluate. Even Yale, a bastion of progressivism, only employs two American Indian professors among nearly 3,000 faculty members.
But rather than observe an anti-Columbus Day, we choose to remember our indigenous ancestors and their strength in the face of oppression, racism and hostility. The survival, adaptation, expansion and continuation of indigenous peoples are surprising given the catastrophic mortality rates, assimilationist policies and historical white-washing they have suffered. Still, indigenous peoples are thriving all over the world.
From the Ainu of Japan to the Maori of New Zealand, indigenous peoples constitute a considerable share of the world’s population. Their common characteristic is that they are marginal to the states that claim jurisdiction over them. However, the experiences of these people have also fostered resistance and eventual revitalization.
The need for a solution to the problems plaguing indigenous people in such areas as human rights, education and health has resulted in considerable progress — perhaps most important, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, the United States was one of four countries who voted against the declaration. Despite this setback, we still work to reveal historical truths and reverse the tide of ignorance.
No, Columbus’ voyage did not discover a new world and initiate American history. Rather, Columbus put two worlds into permanent contact, both with rich histories and cultures. The America of 1492 was not a wilderness inhabited by primitive peoples without complex civilizations and sophisticated systems of religious and scientific belief. And yes, people died after “discovery” — millions of them, from deadly pathogens, displacement policies and ruthless termination.
We cannot afford to trivialize or romanticize such a past. Certain events in history change forever our conception of who we are and how we see the world. Colonialism was one of them. The common historical practice of representing aboriginals as static relics, saved by the individualism and ambition of colonizers, is facile.
Today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a day both to celebrate the resilience of indigenous peoples worldwide and to confront these distortions about the legacy of Christopher Columbus. It is a day to think about the land you stand upon and to consider those who inhabited it before you or your ancestors arrived. I hope students will reconsider celebrating one man, and instead, lend a thought to an oppressed, but hopeful people.
Though the stories of indigenous peoples are distinct, today our voices are united. As a collective of peoples, we celebrate our culture, our language, our songs and our lives. We recognize that our common histories and current realities may, ultimately, bind our fates together. Today we show that we are alive and we are strong.