Organizers and participants of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Conference at Kansas State University say a presidential proclamation recognizing the changed emphasis of the holiday is a good start toward long-term change.
President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever proclamation for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The act lends a significant boost to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native Americans.
K-State’s conference on Monday included a full day of in-person and streaming programming. Keynote speakers included Tiana Suazo, executive director of the Red Willow Center, and Joe Graham, senior program officer at the Native American Agriculture Fund.
University Archives and Special Collections librarian Audrey Swartz is part of the K-State Indigenous Faculty and Staff Alliance. A member of the Miami tribe, Swartz said it’s “amazing” that Biden signed such a proclamation.
“I think it’s great for our national government to acknowledge that,” Swartz said, “and to say, “This is the path forward,” like let’s not give credit to this man who instilled genocide and slave trade.”
Biden issued a separate proclamation Friday recognizing Columbus Day, but also referencing the violence and harm Columbus and other colonial explorers of the age brought to the Americas.
“It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to light, and we do all we can to address them,” Biden said in the proclamation.
Thurman Williams, a member of the Indigenous Faculty and Staff Alliance, said some historians have determined that Columbus’ accidental arrival in what is now the Bahamas led to the deaths of about nine million Indigenous people over a decade. A descendant of Cherokee and Choctaw peoples, Williams said the whole mythology of Columbus was built up by Italian immigrants escaping oppression in Italy who were trying to gain acceptance from Americans who discriminated against them.
“Christopher Columbus was locked up by the king of Spain for murder and all sorts of other things,” Williams said. “He really wasn’t that great of a figure.”
Williams said the presidential proclamation is important, but it does “gloss over a lot of historical traumas” perpetuated over generations.
“I think it’s important that we also acknowledge all of the gifts that Indigenous peoples of the Americas have given to the world,” Williams said.
Director of Intercultural Learning and Academic Success Debra Bolton said the only reason Native Americans were called “Indians” is because Columbus thought he landed in India. That confusion led to further enslavement and violence against native peoples. Bolton’s tribal affiliation is Ohkay Owingeh, Dine and Ute; additionally she is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences, with most of her work focusing on cultural geography and the movement of people. Bolton served as a moderator for multiple breakout sessions and discussions during the conference.
Bolton said one of the reasons the university continues to hold a conference about indigenous peoples is to remind others that “we’re not a thing of the past; we’re still here.”
“We were here on these lands before any Europeans came,” Bolton said, “and now there’s evidence that suggests there are traces of indigenous people on these lands some 21,000 years ago.”
Bolton said the proclamation from Biden is “pretty exciting,” yet there are “still some historical truths that have been left ignored.”
“There are people who are uncomfortable with (the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day), and we’re just trying to say, ‘We are here, we want to thrive, and we want that right to thrive just like the dominant population has that right to thrive,’” Bolton said.