Columbus Day has a controversial history in the US, despite being one of the newer federal holidays. Having been established at the federal level in the 1930s by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, many Italian-Americans celebrate the day as one of cultural pride, particularly in times when Italian-Americans struggled against discrimination. However, when World War II rolled around, Columbus’ Italian origins allowed supporters of Mussolini to use the celebrations as a platform. Native American tribes across the country found the holiday offensive even before it received federal recognition.
In 1992, Berkley, CA, became the first city in the United States to reject Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Twenty-five years later, as of Oct. 9, Time reports a list of 55 cities which have done the same—as well as three universities, three states, two cities which celebrate both, and South Dakota, which replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day in 1990. More communities are considering the same, including Washington, DC itself. As of October 2017, Oberlin, OH, is on the list, and Cindi and Jeriel Byron-Dixon can tell you why.
From Cindi Byron-Dixon:
A friend asked me to explain why I worked to enact Indigenous Peoples’ Day and what might that accomplish. I appreciated his wanting to know and thought maybe I should share my response for others who would like more details.
For starters, Christopher Columbus is widely recognized as having discovered America. He didn’t. He actually never even stepped foot onto the soil of the Lower 48.
He and his men kept journals. In his own journals he spoke of his intention to either destroy or keep as slaves the indigenous people he encountered. He also wrote about his own rape of a woman and how he sexually trafficked girls as young as nine years old.
One of his men was shocked by Columbus’ cruelty and documented what was happening. It is graphic and more violent than I had ever imagined. Columbus was forced to return to Europe eventually, after having been charged with Crimes Against Humanity. The King and Queen whom he made rich did set him free from prison. Columbus and his men are responsible for the genocide of the Arawak people—more than 6 million in Hispaniola.(1)
Our committee, the Indigenous People’s Day Committee, seeks to tell the truth about our history. We want to stop celebrating Columbus as some kind of hero who should be revered. He did not discover our country. As I explained, he was a criminal.
We think it is better to recognize the true people of our land. By recognizing that this land was occupied by people before colonization and celebrating those people instead of Columbus, we take steps toward restorative justice. That is huge to me. We seek to do this for the same reasons we celebrate Juneteenth(2) in Oberlin.
Scientists are now learning that trauma is passed on from generation to generation through epigenetics(3). Intergenerational stress and historical trauma are real and impact children in real ways. Generations of kids forced into boarding schools created generations of parents without children to raise. The system succeeded in dismantling traditional family and cultural structures and values.
When it comes to boarding schools, the trauma is passed down in obvious ways. Many young people never learned their native languages. Many parents and grandparents raising children even today are distrustful of the education system. Educational achievement for Native kids in schools from kindergarten to the 12th grade continues to be the worst of any demographic in the US. Natives have the highest drop out rates, the lowest graduation rates, and lower test scores. Violence in Native communities remains cyclical in nature.
The abuse experienced by thousands of Native youth at boarding schools was rarely, if ever, treated or addressed. Left unchecked, violence has cropped up in families generation after generation. Domestic violence and child neglect occur at higher rates in native communities.
Due to the lack of mental health resources on reservations, many abuse survivors have turned to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate—another cycle to be endured. Native youth begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol at much younger ages than their non-native counterparts. Alcohol experimentation in non-native communities begins around 10th grade; for native children it is the 6th grade, with a high rate of daily use by 8th grade.
Opioid use also begins at a younger age, for many native youth as young as 8th grade. Addiction runs rampant through our native communities, and crimes committed to feed addictions lead to an incarceration rate nearly 40 percent higher than the national average.
The most alarming statistic yet is that Native youth suicide is at more than three times the national average. (In reservation communities, they experience ten times the national rate.) Because of the dismantling of the family, children are seemingly less equipped to cope in positive ways.
When we take stands like advocating for Indigenous Peoples’ Day and acknowledging the lies and myths in our history, we take steps toward Restorative Justice.
From Jeriel Byron-Dixon
It has been an honor to be a Youth Representative on the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee.
I understand that there has been opposition, mostly from out of town, to abolishing and replacing Columbus Day here in Oberlin [OH}. I am also aware that three states and dozens of cities have already done so.
What I think it is important for people to know is that Oberlin has a history of standing aside from the popular worldview. I am lucky to have grown up in a town that truly tries to embrace daily the idea of judging a person only on the content of their character. I consider myself lucky to grow up here.
That, Council Members, is something we have in common. This is our town. This is our community and our desire to stand for truth, even while others say we shouldn’t. We are the ones who live here, play here, go to school and work here, and make our homes here.
We are the ones who are asking you tonight to join with our voices to declare that it is time to acknowledge our nation’s true history. Let’s join in solidarity and take a step toward Restorative Justice here in Oberlin by enacting Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Cindi Byron-Dixon is a member of Community Peace Church, a longtime BPFNA Partner Congregation in Oberlin, OH.
Jeriel Byron-Dixon is a freshman at Oberlin High School and a member of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, OH.
1. Hispaniola is the island that contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
2. On June 19, 1865, the news that slavery had been abolished reached the US state of Texas. Juneteenth Independence Day, or Freedom Day, came to commemorate the announcement throughout the former Confederacy in the southern US. It is celebrated as an official holiday in 45 US states.
3. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence.
Additional note: The introduction above was written by Rachel Boyle, an editorial assistant for Seeds of Hope Publishers in Waco, TX. Here are just a few of the sources she checked: Time Magazine, Wake Magazine, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post and Daily Californian. For a list of links, email [email protected]