When she was growing up on Long Island, Autumn Rose Williams saw Columbus Day as a day off from school — and maybe an excuse for her mom to make her clean the house. She grew up on the Shinnecock Reservation, but she attended school in East Hampton, about 15 miles away. As the only Shinnecock student in her grade, she felt left out of the Christopher Columbus “discovery” narratives she learned about in school.
But Williams’s mom and step-grandmother, who is Jamaican, used the holiday to tell her who Columbus really was. They taught her Columbus didn’t actually land in the United States, and that his legacy is part of a broader narrative that contributes to the erasure of Indigenous and Black women like them.
“It's important to focus on the Indigenous experience because for so long we have been forgotten and erased in the narratives of how we tell history,” Williams said. “It’s time we get the full picture of our history.”
Her experience of the holiday isn’t unique; Columbus Day was always a rewriting of history on every level, said Jean M. Dennison, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and citizen of the Osage Nation.
The first Columbus Day proclamation was issued in 1892 as a response to riots against Italian Americans at a time when they weren’t considered White and were the target of frequent racial violence, Dennison said. Writing Columbus into the American origin story was a way for Italian Americans to ally themselves with Whiteness and settler colonialism. This myth cast Columbus as the first American immigrant, although he never stepped foot in North America — and he wasn’t Italian.
“Columbus Day really signified a moment in which Italians were able to become White by proving a strong connection to settlement,” Dennison said. “That to me, is such a part of understanding what that holiday was about.”
Since the 1990s, a growing number of cities, states and school boards across North America have made an effort to shift the holiday’s focus to recognizing Indigenous people. While events such as Native American Heritage Month celebrate history, Indigenous Peoples’ Day attempts to move the discussion forward, Dennison said.
“The invisibility of Native peoples is a fundamental part of how colonialism has worked,” she said. “It doesn’t speak to Native peoples; in fact, it glorifies the violence that has been done in a quiet, absent way. Indigenous Peoples’ Day turns it on its head and makes visible who and what we are.”
We spoke to five Indigenous women and two-spirit people about what celebrating the present and future of Indigenous peoples means to them.
When Autumn Rose Williams decided to enter the Miss Teen Shinnecock cultural pageant, she was in 10th grade and experiencing depression and suicidal ideation, she said. Her experience is common among Native youths, she noted; Native communities experience higher rates of suicide compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In short, she was “kind of just looking for anything that could make me feel something other than down,” she said.
Getting to learn the Shinnecock language and take dance lessons was an added bonus, she said, a way to feel closer to her roots. Growing up Black and Shinnecock to parents who are both mixed-race, she always loved the synchronicities between Black and Indigenous culture — learning Black spirituals alongside Shinnecock social songs and step dancing alongside the Jingle Dress Dance, for example. There was no way to separate the two, she said.
She went on to win the pageant and then Miss Native American USA in 2017. Now, she’s a public speaker, model and communications coordinator for the federal government’s Administration for Native Americans. Williams said occupying the intersection of her identities allows her to identify synchronicities not just in culture, but in patterns of oppression and colonization.
“We are at the crux of the foundation of what the United States is,” Williams said. “The United States of America would not exist without the labor of African Americans and the land taken from Indigenous people.”
Cheyenne River Sioux, Miniconjou Lakota
Growing up in Rapid City, S.D., Mandy Van Heuvelen didn’t know a world where the second Monday in October was anything but Native American Heritage Day. It wasn’t until she moved to D.C. to work for Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian that she heard about Columbus Day and its celebration.
South Dakota became the first state to replace Columbus Day with a celebration of its Native people in 1990, when then-Gov. George Mickelson (R) declared a “Year of Reconciliation.” The measure, which resulted from decades of Indigenous activism, passed unanimously.
Each year, Van Heuvelen would go with her mother and grandmother to one of the largest powwows in the country, the Black Hills Powwow, or He Sapa Wacipi. The gathering is canceled this year because of the pandemic, but in normal times, it draws thousands of spectators for three days of singing, dancing, drum groups, art shows, cultural pageants and other events.
But Van Heuvelen is getting used to the widespread celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“I actually wonder, what are we supposed to do on Indigenous Peoples’ Day? What are people all over the United States supposed to be doing?” she said. “In part, it’s appreciating Native people. It’s also taking time to learn about our history and to also gain understanding of the challenges that Native people are faced with today.”
For non-Native people, Van Heuvelen suggested using the day to find out whose land you occupy and how to advance the livelihoods of Native peoples living in your region today.
“What I’ve experienced from working with the public at the museum is there this general understanding that Native people got this bad deal in the history of this country,” she said. “But then people don’t quite know where to go with that. One place to start is learning more about the history of where they live and where they’re from. … That’s a step toward building understanding about the land that you live on: the place you call home and what cost that came at.”
Devery Jacobs, the Mohawk actress who plays Elora, said this aspect of the character’s story couldn’t be further from her own truth. She grew up on the Kahnawake reserve just outside Montreal, in the aftermath of the Oka Crisis, a land dispute between a Mohawk group and the Canadian government over the expansion of a golf course on their land, which included a Mohawk cemetery. Her grandmother was the principal of the local Mohawk immersion school, which attempts to revitalize the endangered Kanienʼkéha language after generations of enfranchisement policies and violent residential schools.
Growing up with so much awareness of First Nations resistance gave her “such a strong sense and foundation of who I am,” she said.
“I was raised surrounded by my community and language and culture,” Jacobs said. “I feel like growing up on a reservation was such a treat. It’s a place I’ll forever consider home.”
With holidays like Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States, which is the primary audience for “Reservation Dogs,” Jacobs said more people “are actually considering us.”
Jacobs, who is joining the all-Indigenous writer’s room for season two of “Reservation Dogs,” said she hopes the series will inspire more dynamic Indigenous media — the kind that captures the diversity, individuality and humanity of Indigenous experiences.
“While ‘Reservation Dogs’ is one of the first to accomplish so much for Indigenous filmmaking, we are only scratching the surface,” Jacobs said. “No one project can be representative of everyone’s experience of what it means to be Indigenous.”
A few years ago, Jean Dennison’s daughter came home from school and said her first-grade class was learning about “the hardships of the pilgrims in their journey to America,” she said.
“I definitely kind of lost it,” she said. “I mean, mostly in humor, because it’s just like — I’m really going to shed one tear for these pilgrims and their hardships compared to all of the devastation they brought to Native communities?”
As a scholar, Dennison’s research deals directly with the modern-day impacts of settler colonialism — and the continued resilience of Native peoples to resist it. She’s spent 17 years telling the story of her own Osage people’s nation rebuilding, the process of strengthening the nation’s capacity for self-governance. Her first book, “Colonial Entanglement,” is about the writing of the nation’s 2006 Constitution — a process that took two years. Her second book will focus on the Constitution’s impacts.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she said, is a time to acknowledge this legacy of colonialism and its modern-day impacts. But perhaps more importantly, she said, it is a day to recognize ongoing Indigenous resistance, from Standing Rock and Line 3 to the movement to protect Indigenous women and girls from violence.
“It’s a day that attempts to move beyond the narrative of oppression and instead celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions, and perhaps most importantly, the resiliency of contemporary Native peoples,” she said.
But beyond land acknowledgments and cultural appreciation, Dennison said, many tribal coalitions and activists have used the holiday to demand promises of tangible support. When Seattle, where Dennison lives, established the holiday, activist groups successfully lobbied for the bill to also include material demands: the inclusion of Indigenous history in Seattle Public Schools and a broader ongoing commitment “to promote the well-being and growth” of the area’s Indigenous communities. Dennison said the holiday is a time for all institutions to think about how they can do the same.
“What would it mean to return some of these things that have been taken and to empower Native peoples to make decisions about what to do with these things in the future?” she said.
Member of Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, descended from the Clasop Chinook and Kalapuyan tribes
Steph Littlebird didn’t grow up with a lot of contemporary representations of Indigenous people, she said. The closest thing she saw in pop culture was Disney’s “Pocahontas” — and “she didn’t look or act anything like the Indigenous women I knew.” The caricatures of Indigenous people they grew up seeing on holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving were an extension of that.
“There is a nationalistic lore repeated every year, and this fantasy of ‘manifest destiny’ informs how White Americans view themselves, and the violent actions of their European ancestors,” Littlebird, who is two-spirit and uses she/they pronouns, wrote in an email.
This lack is why she makes the art she does today. Their work depicts Native people as vivid, living and dynamic figures — not as “sepia-toned” figures of the past. In their work as a curator, Littlebird has updated exhibitions to include work by living Native creators and reframe the focus from past stereotypes to the present and ongoing stewardship, artwork, diversity and culture of the Kalapuyan people today.
“My work seeks to counter these misinformed stereotypes, to show that we still exist, we are still here, and that Indigenous people are the living embodiment of resilience,” she wrote.