Earlier today, Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation declaring that Monday, October 11th, shall be commemorated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States. This is the first time the United States has recognized the holiday on a national level, following a number of states, municipalities, and tribal nations throughout the country making the decision to celebrate the day.
Biden’s proclamation mentions the contributions of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, stating that these groups “have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations.” It goes on to affirm his administration’s commitment to making “respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance the cornerstone of Federal Indian policy.” The proclamation also notes the accomplishments of Indigenous communities during the pandemic, including that Indigenous people have one of the highest vaccination rates of any ethnic group.
SEATTLE, WA – OCTOBER 13: Nikk “Red Weezil” Dakota (R), from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, celebrates with others from various tribes during Indigenous Peoples’ Day events at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center on October 13, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. Earlier that afternoon, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution designating the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
The proclamation also mentions, although it does not dwell on it, the history of colonization and genocide that Indigenous nations have faced in the United States:
Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to. That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began. For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society. We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a counter-celebration to Columbus Day, an idea originally proposed in 1977 by the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. The first official adoption of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” was in Berkeley, California, in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s expedition to the Americas, although two years earlier, in 1990, South Dakota replaced Columbus Day with “Native American Day.”
The timing is meant to challenge the colonialist narrative of history taught to American students, namely that American history begins when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492, and the marginalization of Indigenous people in our own time.
“Indigenous Peoples are left in the shadows of Euro-America’s destiny,” says Sarah Shear, assistant professor of Social Studies Education at Penn State University–Altoona, during a keynote speech at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, “while the cooperation and conflict model provides justification for the eventual termination of Indigenous Peoples from the American landscape and historical narrative.”
Olin Tezcatlipoca (L) from the Mexica Movement marches with other demonstrators to a statue of Christopher Columbus during a protest against Columbus Day in Grand Park, Los Angeles, California on October 11, 2015. The Mexica Movement is amongst a growing group of people and US cities that want change the name of the ‘Columbus Day’ holiday to ‘Indigenous Peoples Day. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
“Celebrating Columbus and other explorers like him,” says the museum’s Native Knowledge 360 project, “dismisses the devastating losses experienced by Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere in the past and the ongoing effects of colonialism today.” According to the museum, Indigenous people in the Americas lost 95% of their population following European colonization.
President Biden’s proclamation does not replace Columbus Day, which is a federal holiday enacted by Congress, although many of the state and municipal recognitions of the holiday do outright replace Columbus Day. In a separate proclamation, Biden celebrated the contributions of Italian immigrants and their descendants to the United States, but also noted the “painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.”
While Indigenous Peoples’ Day is meant as a challenge to a historical narrative that centers Columbus and other European colonizers, it is also meant to draw attention to the contemporary contributions and struggles of Indigenous America. Dr. Shear’s project noted that in most U.S. history standards, the vast majority of references to Indigenous peoples is pre-1900. For many non-Indigenous Americans, Indigenous peoples seem to be part of the past, rather than living individuals in modern America. And as The Wild Hunt has covered, even today Indigenous people face challenges to their history, culture, and religious beliefs. This includes an often uneasy relationship with modern Pagans, given the history of Pagans who let a romantic conception of Native spirituality give way to religious appropriation.
According to the Associated Press, the president’s decision today took many Indigenous activists by surprise.
“This was completely unexpected. Even though we’ve been talking about it and wanting it for so long,” Hillary Kempenich, an artist and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, told the Associated Press. “I’m kind of overwhelmed with joy.”