A Columbus Day message from NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr.

Letter to the Editor

Every year at this time, I feel compelled to say something about what Columbus Day means to Indian people. As the spokesman for a national organization, I know that whatever I say or write will be carefully scrutinized by the general public, and friend and foe alike will form opinions. I accept the scrutiny because it comes with the territory. Still, there are days that matter more than others; and as Indian people, we are part of a society that recognizes certain times and individuals as worthy of national attention. Columbus Day is not one of them.

Indian people have their own governments, cultures, societies and values, and often we are able to live respectfully within American society. Sometimes, however, we must remind ourselves that there are lines we cannot cross. For example, the history of Indian people in America is full of government-sponsored oppression, including thefts of land, outlawing of religions, undermining our languages and mass removals, to mention a few. There are also counterpoints that reflect the respect we maintain for America, such as our participation in its wars for the past 200 years despite the genocide faced by our ancestors. Most of us are determined to keep what we have and to ensure that our children are provided with accurate historical accounts of our families, clans, societies and nations as well as our true place in world history.

This has not gone unnoticed by Indian youth. In recent years, young Indians in colleges and universities have addressed this and other related issues with energetic determination. Last year, Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., students led a peaceful demonstration through downtown Lawrence to bring attention about the truth of Columbus Day. I was fortunate to be there and have some limited participation by pushing my granddaughter’s stroller through the crowd while wearing black to represent mourning. Mostly I observed Indian students and their families leading a proactive and respectful demonstration against Columbus Day. In other places, Indian people are not ignoring Columbus Day either: and it makes me proud when Native people assert their feelings about a historical injustice in such a positive and confident way.

The truth of Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colombo as he was known in his time, has been well documented and is one that we, as Indian people, should never forget. We can no more forget Christopher Columbus’ enslavement of Native people on his first journey to America any more than we can afford to forget the various massacres by the U.S. Cavalry on our ancestors, elders, women and children, all backed by the policies of the U. S. government.

Wounded Knee, Sand Creek and the Trail of Tears come to mind when I think about our history, and it hurts to know that Columbus’ voyage was the beginning of centuries of subjugation of our people. In that maiden voyage of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, names American schoolchildren can recite from memory, Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). After remarking in his captain’s log of the hospitality he and his men received, Columbus wantonly killed and enslaved the Arawak people he found there beginning his quest for gold and glory.

We can’t change history, but we can tell the truth. For me, educating my children and other young Indian people about the past is as much of a responsibility as anything I do professionally. Still, I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but to build from the truth and future we can all be proud of.

For the past 10 or more years, Indian country has asked for a day of national recognition for our contributions to America. This is not only truthful and reasonable, it is long overdue. Recently, Congress passed and the president signed House Joint Resolution 62, designating the day after Thanksgiving as “National Native American Heritage Day.” This will be a day to celebrate both the contributions as well as the sacrifices of our ancestors and give us a place in our shared history with America. It is a day of recognition that we, along with all other American citizens, can celebrate.

While “Native American Heritage Day” is a small recognition that won’t change the world, it is an opportunity to educate Americans on a history that is routinely ignored. And while we don’t want to spend all of our time focusing on the past policies of genocide and the atrocities committed against Indian people, it is important that Americans know the positive side as well: the warm welcoming settlers received and the Native assistance that helped those early settlers survive. “Native American Heritage Day” also signals a willingness to balance the historical record of America along with recognition of our Native peoples’ contributions beginning with our culture and continuing with the service of our Native veterans in the U.S. Armed Forces.

We cannot turn back the calendar any more than we can change the cultural mores of the larger society we live in. Holidays and remembrances are established by the government and consented to by the commercial enterprises. Religious holidays are supported because a majority of citizens want to honor their traditions on a certain day. When the government decrees a national holiday, our communities are affected by it: post offices and banks close. Often, our tribal governments plan our annual calendars by plugging in those same days. The fact that never before has the government recognized a special day for Native religious festivals or historical acts indicates that we are truly a minority within a minority of people in the United States. Therefore, we should not take the passage of House Joint Resolution 62 as a minor event. This resolution is a first step towards establishing a Native American national day of observance and recognition.

I can assure you that the National Indian Gaming Association will work towards establishing “Native American Heritage Day” as a permanent day of recognition. We will continue to work towards this goal even on Columbus Day, where the NIGA offices are always open on this federal holiday with a full staff hard at work throughout the day.

As Indian leaders, I urge you and your communities and schools to help clarify the truth about Columbus on this day. Secondly, I encourage your communities to honor and celebrate Native American Heritage Day on the Friday following Thanksgiving. This would go far in balancing American history with generational healing.

– Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman
National Indian Gaming Association

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