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First Nations educator challenges Columbus’ legacy on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Arawak indigenous peoples representative Claudia A. Fox Tree disputed popular notions of Christopher Columbus’ societal contributions at an Intercultural Center (ICC) teach-in presentation on Monday, Oct. 8.

The Arawak are a group of indigenous peoples native to South America and the Caribbean. In her presentation, Fox Tree listed ways Columbus and other European colonists uprooted indigenous culture throughout history, including taking native land, food sources, language and freedom.

Dressed in traditional regalia, Fox Tree spoke about the gaps in her cultural history. She pointed out that while many Americans can access a wealth of information about their heritage all over the world, Native Americans often struggle to find information in a country they have lived in for thousands of years.

“I wouldn’t expect to go anywhere else in the world to learn about the indigenous people, and the fact that I can’t find literature and politicians and banks and lawyers and artists and musicians as easily in this country, where it should be, is a problem,” Fox Tree said. “Everyone else can go to their country of origin and find those things.”

Fox Tree also related the struggles of indigenous peoples to those of the Jewish people, likening New England tribes’ 17th century imprisonment on Deer Island to concentration camps and comparing the Trail of Tears with the Holocaust. She mentioned a centuries-old connection, saying, “the term ‘final solution’ was not coined by the Nazis. It was the Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott from Canada who plotted out to take care of the Indian problem in 1910.”

According to Fox Tree, her own experiences with lifelong access to education, clean drinking water and healthcare are advantages that many First Nations people cannot claim. She discussed modern issues in indigenous communities, such as health and safety disparities, reporting that Native American women are murdered at a rate ten times the national average and that indigenous youth have a suicide rate three times higher than their peers.

Fox Tree attributed the plights of indigenous youth to racist policies in which the government used to separate them from their families. She said that in 1978, President Carter introduced the Indian Child Welfare Act to end the legal basis the U.S. government used to place children outside their Native American communities. However, this policy did not halt the trend altogether. Fox Tree revealed that instead of boarding schools, indigenous children nowadays are put in the foster care system. In Minnesota, indigenous children are put in the foster care system at rates 22 times higher than other racial groups in the state.

A recurring theme throughout Fox Tree’s presentation was word choice. She explained that one reason she wore regalia was to introduce the proper term for it. She admitted that she used to think costume was an appropriate word to describe traditional dress but then realized its harmful connotations.

Fox Tree urged audience members to question offensive language and images. Other examples of Native American words that should not be appropriated out of their original context included the phrase “pow wow.” Fox Tree recognized that pow wow is often used in business settings as a synonym for discussion but reasoned that since its origins are in Native American medical ceremonies, this usage is both confusing and offensive. She also condemned caricatures of indigenous people in sports, urging audience members to reject mascots that offend racial groups.

Fox Tree concluded with a call to action, asking the audience to become educated on indigenous peoples’ issues and to join movements as allies, co-conspirators and agitators.

 

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