By Anggie Tamayo
Originally Published in the November 2014 issue.
Seattle embraces Indigenous People’s Day
“I am so happy that my grandchildren are here today to witness this,” said Pam Nason, a
Colville woman who spoke at a October 13 ceremony celebrating the very first Indigenous People’s Day in Seattle . “I am so happy that you can be here to witness this…that we can be honored for all the suffering that [our] mothers and fathers had gone through.”
To the sound of drums and singing and the urging of hundreds of citizens like Nason, Mayor Ed Murray made history by signing a resolution declaring the second monday of October Indigenous People’s Day. It was the intention of the resolution to honor the contributions of Native peoples—and in the eyes of many it was a symbolic rejection of the unscrupulous Christopher Columbus, whose federal holiday falls on the same date.
“This city should not honor a man who played such a pivotal role in the worst genocide humankind has ever known,” said socialist Council Member Kshama Sawant within the council chambers on the day of the resolution vote.
The name change was the result of community action. The push to abolish Columbus Day started on September 2, 2014, when indigenous activists and their supporters gathered outside of City Hall to protest a holiday being named after a man responsible for the wanton murder and mutilation of Native peoples. The protests inspired a lively and fervid debate, with many supporting the move while others criticized it as political correctness gone too far. When it came to the final vote on October 6th, the Seattle City Council unanimously assented to the resolution. Henceforth Seattle would celebrate Indigenous People’s Day every second Monday of October.
After the council’s vote, an Italian American group bought a full page ad in the Seattle Times denouncing the change and threatening political retaliation. They said the name change was an affront to Italians (Columbus was Italian).
However for many others, the name change is a step toward addressing historical grievances and beginning the process of healing.
“It [Indigenous People’s Day] gives the accurate history of tribes in this region, as well as current issues impacting our native people today,” said Matt Remle, a Lakota Tribe member who wrote the original draft of the name change resolution and petitioned the City Council to adopt it.
According to Remle, public schools in Seattle and elsewhere in the United States have been teaching many incorrect facts about Columbus for decades. He hopes that the name change will be a step toward changing the curriculum in public schools in Seattle and elsewhere on the history of Native Americans and the arrival of Europeans like Columbus.
In an October 1st resolution inspired by the movement to amend city policy, the Seattle School Board declared that it “seeks to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and institutionalized racism,” and that it encourages teachers “to include the teaching of the history, culture, and governments of the indigenous peoples,” in their lessons. The district also announced that it will now recognize Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October.
Remle says he hopes that Seattle schools will eventually adopt a curriculum developed by the 29 indigenous tribes in Washington called Since Time Immemorial. The curriculum would give K-12 students a “The takeaway for all of us is we need more accurate information in our public school system.”
Although he has long been feted as the hero navigator and explorer who “discovered” America, recent scholarship has undermined the traditional view of Columbus. In A People’s History of the United States, author Howard Zinn gives a detailed but horrifying account of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World and his role in the widespread destruction of Native societies. Columbus forced many Natives into slavery, ransacked Native villages without provocation, and mutilated any Natives who didn’t meet his monthly gold quota.
The adoption of Indigenous People’s Day is a big achievement. It is a way to call people’s attention to racism and discrimination, and an opportunity to reflect on the history and culture of the original people of this land. However this adoption is only the first step in a long journey towards restoring justice.