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Change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day at Brandeis

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

September 23, 2016

If you’ve been on Facebook lately, you might have noticed a page titled “Vote to Change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day at Brandeis.” This page has received a lot of traffic from Brandeis students and organizations, gaining endorsements from several clubs and individual students. The Facebook page connects users to a Change.org petition demanding that Brandeis change “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day” in the Brandeis calendar. The About section of the Facebook page briefly describes its mission: “As Brandeis students, we are pushing to change ‘Columbus Day’ to ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ in our Academic Calendar and social consciousness.” The online petition received over 500 signatures. During the next Faculty Senate, faculty will vote on whether to recommend the name change. Hopefully, Brandeis faculty will endorse the name change, and “Columbus Day” will officially become “Indigenous People’s Day” in the Brandeis calendar.

Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday of October, and was officially established as a federal holiday in 1937. The idea to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day was first presented during the 1977 UN International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations. In response to growing anger toward Columbus Day, several states, including Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota opted not to celebrate Columbus Day. South Dakota, a state with one of the largest Native American populations in the country, celebrates Native Americans Day in lieu of Columbus Day. Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon also have relatively large indigenous populations.

To me, it seems obvious that Brandeis should replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Brandeis students already don’t celebrate Columbus. Most Brandeis students rightfully see Columbus as an evil figure rather than an inspiring one. Outside of Brandeis, most young people don’t have the romanticized view of colonialism or Columbus associated with older Americans. Even among more conservative Brandeis students, anti-colonial and anti-Columbus sentiments prevail. Changing the day’s designation from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day allows the calendar to better reflect the sentiments of the Brandeis student body.

I don’t think that I need to convince any Brandeis student that Columbus was a bad person, but many might not know that Columbus was such a repugnant character that he was hated even by the Spanish royals for whom he worked. The Queen of Spain eventually recalled and imprisoned him while he was on one of his voyages. As the original European colonizer in the Americas, he set the precedent for the horrible treatment of indigenous people. His crew was the first to spread the European diseases that decimated indigenous populations. Without Columbus, colonization of the Americas still would have happened, but it might not have been so cruel.

One of the possible objections to establishing Indigenous People’s Day is that the change would not actually change circumstances for indigenous people. On the surface, this objection is correct. Simply changing the name of the holiday would not affect social conditions. It cannot reverse the genocide committed against Native Americans. It won’t free modern tribes from small reservations on sparse, infertile land. However, the new name endorses the substantial and significant change in attitudes toward indigenous people, and this change in attitudes can have huge implications.

The growth of anti-colonial or pro-indigenous sentiment among young people could have a massive effect on modern Native American issues, which are deeply tied to the legacies of Columbus and other colonizers.

2016 is an especially relevant and tumultuous year for indigenous people in America. Lately, Native American protests in North Dakota have put indigenous issues at the forefront of American media. Hundreds of Native American tribes are currently convened in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL. The protesters claim that the oil pipeline, which passes through the Missouri River, is poorly constructed and is thus at a high risk of spilling oil into the river and polluting the drinking water for millions of Americans. The protests have been somewhat successful, causing the federal government to reevaluate the construction permit issued for the pipeline.

DAPL protesters and their supporters see this protest as an indigenous issue. Many of the protesters refer to their activism as “earth guardianship” and state that it has a deep connection to their heritage as Native Americans. These protesters see environmental protest as part of their responsibility to protect their ancestral land. The DAPL protests have brought Native American issues into the mainstream, creating a more accessible culture for pro-indigenous activism on a much smaller scale, including the campaign to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day at Brandeis.

Although the petition to establish Indigenous People’s Day at Brandeis is insignificant in comparison to larger movements like the DAPL protests, it is an important facet of our country’s expanding consciousness of Native American issues. Referring to the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day would allow Brandeis to formally distance its ideas from Columbus’s genocidal legacy. The change endorses the view that indigenous lives are worthwhile and reflects the growing consciousness of Native American and indigenous issues at Brandeis.

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