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Indigenous Peoples Day

The first city to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day was Berkeley, California, back in 1992. This month, Portland, Oregon*, the city I live in, joined Berkeley and a handful of other cities and towns throughout the country, and adopted Indigenous Peoples Day. That means the second Monday of October (today) will no longer be Columbus Day; it will instead celebrate the indigenous peoples who settled our nation first. Well, at least in Portland and a handful of cities and towns throughout the country. The rest of them will continue to, if not celebrate, be aware that Columbus Day has arrived. Because of this, another class of schoolchildren will be fed a lot of rot about this brave explorer who “discovered” America.

That some cities and towns are starting to make moves to replace Columbus Day with something that at least nods in the direction of the folks who’d begun to populate the Americas some 15,000 years before Columbus reached the Bahamas is a good thing, as, and I’m making a sweeping generalization here, I’d wager a guess that a lot of folks are at least somewhat aware that Christoforo Colombo’s foundation of greatness was built on very shaky soil. Some folks are probably aware that the man who’s been fêted with a holiday in his name since 1937 never set foot on what would become the continental United States. That enslavement and brutality followed in the wake of his three famous ships. That Natives who didn’t collect enough gold could have their hands cut off, and rebel Spanish colonists were executed at the gallows. And that his voyages inaugurated a period of European exploration, conquest, and colonization that lasted for several centuries and whose annihilating prowess is felt to this day.

It’s a good thing that some change is in the air, but I wonder as to its ability to spark interest in the history of the first settlers. Does the adoption of a new holiday have the power to be more than a name? Will it have the power to spark something beyond a nod? Is it right and just to usher Columbus out quietly with a holiday that is, in a way, rather sweeping in its generality? Something that crossed my mind more than a few times while composing this column was this: What the hell do I know about the indigenous people this holiday purports to celebrate? What myths have I bought into? If I’ve known that Columbus Day has been a crock for more than half my life, why don’t I know more about the First Peoples than I do?

Perhaps that’s my own personal shortcomings as a student of the history and people of this continent. More likely, it’s that Native Americans turn up as little more than footnotes in our school textbooks. In elementary classes, we sing songs about Columbus “discovering” America; we sing no such songs for Native Americans. For every ten inches of text on Columbus, there should be ten pages on Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps the awareness of this holiday will help us finally get the ratio right. Surely it’s best to champion the fact that one holiday, out of the numerous ridiculous holidays that speckle our calendar, is about people, and not about conquest. Maybe, and this is a very long shot, the reexamination of those numerous ridiculous holidays will pick up a bit of pace. That would be a good thing, too.

*It should be noted that the state of Oregon, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and South Dakota, do not celebrate Columbus Day at all.

EDMUND SANDOVAL lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Minnesota Review, The Common, Fourteen Hills, and The Mud Season Review, among others. He earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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