6 conflicting feelings I have about Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a Native woman

October 10, 2017

When I was in school, I was always SO ready for a long weekend by the time Columbus Day rolled around. But I’m Mvskoke (Creek). As a Native person, I made snide jokes about the holiday, insisting I was going to work through it in defiance or asking what, exactly, we were supposed to celebrate. And with good reason. Though we all know by now that Columbus wasn’t the first person to reach the United States, the holiday was intended to commemorate the European explorers who “discovered” our country — and proceeded to initiate large-scale genocide and cultural erasure upon the people (like my ancestors) who were living here…but, of course, the holiday isn’t about that part.

Anna Buckley / HelloGiggles – Marilyn Angel Wynn / Getty Images

When I was in school, I was always SO ready for a long weekend by the time Columbus Day rolled around. But I’m Mvskoke (Creek). As a Native person, I made snide jokes about the holiday, insisting I was going to work through it in defiance or asking what, exactly, we were supposed to celebrate. And with good reason. Though we all know by now that Columbus wasn’t the first person to reach the United States, the holiday was intended to commemorate the European explorers who “discovered” our country — and proceeded to initiate large-scale genocide and cultural erasure upon the people (like my ancestors) who were living here…but, of course, the holiday isn’t about that part.

Recently, Los Angeles joined several other cities in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in an effort to, as one city councilman put it, right a “historical wrong.” My newsfeed is full of friends organizing or participating in Indigenous Peoples’ Day activities across the country. I certainly join them in wanting Columbus Day changed. Christopher Columbus was not a person to celebrate, and the “discovery” and founding of this country caused devastating wounds to indigenous people, wounds that still affect our lives every day. But I feel somewhat conflicted every time another city embraces Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

I feel for Italians, many of whom have embraced Columbus Day as a time to celebrate their cultural heritage (though Columbus would have called himself a Genovese, since Italy was not a unified country until 1861). People of other ethnicities are commemorated on holidays in honor of people or events that apply to them. The difficult history, incredible survival, and many accomplishments of African-Americans are commemorated on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth, for example. Perhaps we could have a holiday commemorating an important indigenous person or date, though I’m not sure who or what that would be. Each tribe would likely have a different answer.

I certainly don’t speak for all indigenous people, many of whom have worked tirelessly to make the change, but as an individual Mvskoke woman, here are some conflicting feelings I have about replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day all across the country.

1. “Indigenous People” are more diverse than this holiday implies.

There are already several “Native American Day”-type holidays floating around state calendars, such as the one celebrated this year on September 22nd in California and South Dakota. It’s a nice idea, but there are already so many people who think “Native American” signifies one big, unified culture, and I’m afraid this kind of holiday reinforces that idea. In fact, the land that became the United States was home to hundreds of independent nations prior to the founding of this country. Today, there are 566 federally recognized Indian tribes, with our own governments, courts, languages, and cultural practices. There are also several more tribes recognized by various states. The only thing many of us have in common is the fact that the U.S. government treated all of our ancestors badly.

What’s more, “Indigenous Peoples” generally refers to indigenous people all over the world, not just in the United States, which is what the holiday implies. There is already an International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9th.

2.We did not “contribute” to America.

I’m married to a soldier, and Army bases have events for each heritage month, which means that every year, I am certain to hear at least once about how Native American Heritage Month recognizes the “contributions” Native people have made to the United States. The same phrasing is often used by people who support Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I know I’m going to sound like that bitter person you don’t want to sit next to at dinner when I say this, but Native people didn’t “contribute” to America. Our ancestors didn’t even want America to happen. They wanted us to keep being the Mvskoke, the Dine’, the Tsalagi, etc. Native people weren’t even made U.S. citizens until 1924, and some didn’t get to vote until 1957.

America happened to us. We did not “contribute” to our own decimation and cultural injury, nor did we fight to keep ourselves and our traditions alive for the betterment of the United States. It was survival. I recognize that there is a lot of good in this country today, but my “contributions” to it are made in honor of my own tribe even if they happen to end up making America a better place.

3. I dread the proliferation of “Indian costumes.”

We can’t even trust people (or, apparently, animals) not to wear inappropriate “Indian costumes” at Halloween, music festivals like Coachella, and elementary Thanksgiving programs. And it’s not just the costumes. If the behavior of non-Mexican people at Cinco de Mayo and non-Irish people on St. Patrick’s Day is any indication of how non-Natives might act on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I don’t want any part of it.

4. It’s not fair to just take away the Italians’ holiday without giving them another one.

Yes, I did just call out Italians for celebrating their culture on a day commemorating a guy who wasn’t even technically Italian, but it’s not like St. Patrick was Irish either. Still, Italian and Irish immigrants, among others, did not have an easy time in the United States when they first arrived. Both groups were met with blatant prejudice that affected their communities for generations, and as a member of another ethnic group that has survived despite oppression, I don’t want to see them lose a holiday that allows them to remember what they have endured and to celebrate what they have accomplished. Not all Italians celebrate on Columbus Day, though.

There are Italian-American festivals all across the country, on several different days. If Columbus Day becomes Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I hope Italian-Americans can embrace one of the other days. I lived in northern Italy for four years, and that gave me a new perspective on how hard it is for immigrants to leave their country for good. Many Italian-Americans maintain their connection to Italy, and while they don’t need a holiday to prove it, they also don’t deserve to lose the one they have without getting a replacement.

5. I don’t want to share.

Preserve me from “New Age Indians.” You know the type…They say things like, “I’m not Indian by blood, but I am Indian in spirit (or was Indian in a past life).” Or “I have an Indian spirit guide (or spirit animal).” Or “My great-great grandmother was an Indian princess.” These people definitely mean well. They love indigenous people. They love us so much they want to be us. But even the people who are just interested in Native cultures can sometimes go one annoying or even damaging step too far. (I’m talking to you too, non-Native anthropologists, historians, artists, and fashion designers.)

I can only imagine what kind of innocent-yet-cringeworthy appropriation and self-identification would occur were we to have a federal Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I know indigenous people would be called upon to “share” their cultural practices at events, and that always attracts the people I’m talking about. I know that some indigenous people like to share, and I know that I LOVE when people of other cultures let me come to their events and witness their beautiful traditions. Not to sound like a kindergartner, but I don’t want to share any more than we already do. Sharing so often leads to things getting taken away.

6. “Honoring” indigenous people seldom works out in our favor.

Lots of sports fans think they are honoring indigenous people with their hideous cartoon mascots. Many models and photographers using an inappropriate headdresses claim they are honoring indigenous people. And those are just the obvious ways that “honoring” goes awry. My concern with Indigenous Peoples’ Day being created to “honor” us is that so often, things that are “honored” are things that are gone, and despite the U.S. government’s best efforts over the years, we are not gone.

We are not “the last of our kind.” We are not “vanishing cultures.” We are not “part of American history.” We are living modern lives in a modern time, even though we may think of our ancestors and descendants more than most other Americans when we make decisions. Even though we speak tribal languages alongside American slang and know the words to both ancient songs and Taylor Swift’s latest. (Yes. I said it. Taylor Swift.) Even though we attend ceremonies our ancestors would recognize and go to colleges they wouldn’t.

I only speak for myself when I say I don’t want my ancestors to be honored by a holiday. We honor them every day by the way we live our lives, and I believe they are ours to honor, not this country’s.

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