Why Indigenous People’s Day
October 8, 2021
I encourage us all to take a moment to reflect on why we’re not in school this coming Monday. For years, and certainly through my childhood, this federal holiday was celebrated as Columbus Day in observance of the explorer’s contact with this continent. In the last handful of years in Vermont and increasingly around the country, the holiday’s name is being replaced with the phrase Indigenous People’s Day, and we’ve adopted that as well at Vermont Commons—both the name and taking a day away from school to reflect on what exactly that means and why that name change is important. As a lifelong learner of history, I’ve both unlearned what I was taught at a young age about this so-called discovery of America and replaced that with information about what actually happened at that particular moment of European contact, by whom, and where. That Columbus never stepped foot in North America and that his actions were less savory than what the old children’s stories purported makes a good case for letting go of that particular tradition. This particular de-emphasizing of Columbus on this day has made way for an emphasis on the Native American, Indigenous, First Nation, Abenaki (and other) people whose land this was and is—the very land on which I sit and write this at 75 Green Mountain Drive. This is good, right, and overdue.
It took me traveling with a close friend twenty years ago this summer through the Black Hills in South Dakota to begin truly to understand what work needed undoing. I had read From Where the Sun Now Stands, a novel about Chief Joseph, for school. I’d reviewed Prison Writings as a young journalist and learned in depth about Leonard Peltier and A.I.M. I’d listened to and shared with students Robbie Robertson’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, hosted Simon Ortiz as a writer in residence, and taught Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony on several occasions, and more. But driving with Dave, a Native American friend, across South Dakota on a long road trip out west, stopping—the first time for both of us—at Little Big Horn, the Black Hills, Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Monument and encountering all of those things first through his lens opened something in him, and me. You grow up hearing about Columbus Day and seeing postcards of Rushmore, and you don’t think too much about it. But you drive into the Black Hills knowing that they are considered not only sacred by the Lakota Sioux but actually, literally the center of the universe, and you stand at the foot of Rushmore and understand that this sacred mountainside was literally dynamited and permanently imprinted with faces symbolic of the overrunning of Native America, you learn this happened recently (1927-1941), and things shift. And you stand next to one of the survivors, and you can never see those rock faces the same way, ever again.
Wendell Berry once wrote, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” The collective shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day is in the right direction. It doesn’t fix anything—it’s not that easy, but it announces the intention to do so. Berry doesn’t answer the question of whether or not desecration can be reversed. Let us be a people, or peoples, both of hope and action: let us believe that it can, that the sacredness of land, all land, all peoples’ land, can once again be revealed and revered. And may we be good stewards of the land we, Vermont Commons, work and live upon in our journey, doing along the way whatever is in our capacity in word and action to honor those, the Abenaki, whose land it is.