The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a longer association with the indigenous inhabitants of what is now the United States than almost any other state. This year, a group calling itself Indigenous People’s Day Massachusetts is supporting a bill in the state legislature that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day statewide.
Supporters of the measure say the effort is twofold: to no longer observe Columbus Day, since it honors a man who exploited, tortured, killed and ultimately committed genocide against all the native peoples he came in contact with; and secondly, to replace it with the commemoration of this country’s first inhabitants, who have mostly been erased in the modern mind, but who still live on throughout the country.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mahtowin Munro, who is co-leader of United American Indians of New England, which sponsors the annual Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, and lead organizer with Indigenous People’s Day Massachusetts. Here, she talks about the campaign, and explains why introducing Indigenous People’s Day while continuing to observe Columbus Day is not a viable option.
MAHTOWIN MUNRO: We’ve been working on Indigenous People’s Day campaigns here since 2015 in Massachusetts. There are now several towns that have Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day. And here’s why we’re doing it. There are actually two parts. One is that we need to get rid of Columbus Day entirely. Nobody should be celebrating Columbus. Children should not be taught that Columbus discovered America. Children should not be taught that Columbus was a hero. And so, when we go in and speak to communities, we talk about Columbus. The historical truth is that Columbus and his men invaded the Americas. They didn’t discover anybody because people were already on their islands with their own civilizations living their own lives. They didn’t have to be invaded. He didn’t bring civilization because people already had civilization. He did bring Catholicism, and people were forced to convert to Catholicism over time.
The actions of Columbus and his men were barbaric even for the 1400s. Largely, a lot of people didn’t question this idea about the so-called discovery of America by Columbus and a lot of people were not aware of how horrific his actions were. We can understand in that context that people may not have understood then, but to be honest, people have known for quite a long time in more recent times. There was a lot of education done in 1992, which was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s sailing, and that information has been out for quite a long time now. So when somebody comes in and says Columbus should continue to be celebrated, that’s problematic, and it says that they’re not listening, and it’s a pretext for ongoing racism and invisibilization of indigenous people, to be honest.
That’s part one. And part two of it is this. What we’ve been seeking to do, and this has been the case with indigenous people since the 1970s, is to replace Columbus Day with something that’s actually positive, which is Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous People’s Day is now being celebrated instead of Columbus Day all over the country. For instance, very recently the entire states of Maine and Vermont both passed legislation to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, and there are some other states that have also done likewise. We have a bill currently before the Massachusetts legislature to do that here now. There are also many, many cities and towns who have done that. Los Angeles. San Francisco. Portland, Oregon. Albuquerque. When we look around the country it’s something that’s happening more and more. And we, indigenous people, always say that it’s something positive to replace something really damaging and negative, which is Columbus Day.
And it explicitly replaces it; it doesn’t make sense to celebrate them side by side. I don’t think any sensible person would say you should celebrate Hitler’s birthday at the same time that you celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Day. But in effect, that’s what is happening when some people are saying, “Oh yeah, we can just continue to have Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day on the same day.”
When we have Indigenous People’s Day, it gives us an opportunity not only to talk about the history of some of these things, but it also gives us an opportunity to come in and talk about indigenous human beings and tribal nations who continue to live in all of these areas – in every town, in every city, in every state – and talk about our ongoing resilience and survival and to talk about our cultures and to talk about our true history that we’ve experienced. These are things that a lot of non-native people are not particularly aware of. I read there was a study done where 40 percent of non-native people said they had never even met a native person, for instance. If you look in the media, if you look in statistics, if you look in newspapers or nearly everything else, native people are erased in this country. You very rarely hear about us. So it gives us a chance to come forward and celebrate the original inhabitants of these lands. It also gives us a chance to talk about whose land this is, because there were obviously people here first, and a lot of non-native people have never thought about who was here before the Europeans began invading.