Recently, officials from Wisconsin’s geographically largest county declared the second Monday in October, which this year falls on Oct. 14, Indigenous Peoples Day.
“We can’t undo the atrocities that have been done against indigenous peoples,” Tricia Zunker, associate justice of the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, told Marathon County officials as they adopted the resolution. “But we can recognize the beautiful cultures of the various tribal nations. The rich history, the different cultures, languages, government, customs, traditions. And we can appreciate that and recognize the resilience of the native people. We’re still here.”
Observed in place of Columbus Day, which traditionally honors colonist Christopher Columbus, Indigenous Peoples Day celebrates the survival of Native Americans and the significant roles they play today. Seven states (Alabama, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont) and many cities and school districts now use this occasion to acknowledge the historical and cultural legacies of indigenous peoples.
Many of us are embarrassed by how little we know about Native Americans and their history of genocide, colonization, forced removals from their land, broken treaties, boarding schools and other forms of erasure or assimilation. We are also poorly informed about their survival and continued resilience.
At a recent educational event through The Nation magazine, Lakota educator Cheryl Kary described the importance of making indigenous people visible. Years ago, she said, she overheard her 8-year-old daughter being told by a classmate that “you can’t be Indian because they are all dead.” A generation later, she heard those same words spoken to her granddaughter.
The revitalization of native culture and languages has brought increasing visibility to indigenous people. Whatever our interests or passions, we can find unique contributions and perspectives that American Indians bring to conversations, fields and movements. Excellent recent books, David Treuer’s “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” Nick Estes’ “Our History Is the Future,” and Tommy Orange’s novel, “There There,” teach us about present and future issues through the lens of the past.
This year’s traveling exhibition, “Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists,” features individually named artists from named nations. So much of native art has been disrespectfully identified as representing an entire “culture” or “type” by collectors who falsely believed native cultures were vanishing.
It is also exciting to see indigenous people playing leadership roles, for example, in environmental and climate change activism and in anti-violence movements including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Joy Harjo of the Muscogee Creek Nation has been named as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate. And Congress will soon have five Native Americans for the first time (including the appointment of a delegate from the Cherokee Nation, finally fulfilling an 1835 treaty commitment).
If we live in a city or state where Indigenous Peoples Day is officially recognized, we can help publicize and celebrate the day. If not, we can start working now to make sure our community officially acknowledges Indigenous Peoples Day by this time next year.
We can work to include land acknowledgements (whose land are we on?) in public spaces and events, and oppose Indian imagery as mascots or advertisements. And it’s just a good time to promise ourselves that we will know a lot more about Native American issues by this time next year.
Nancy Worcester of Madison, Wisconsin, is an activist and professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in gender and women’s studies and continuing studies. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.