On April 3rd, 2019, the state of New Mexico officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. From now on, the second Monday in October will honor the strength and resilience of Indigenous People.
It is a historic moment, and one that I am blessed to be alive to witness. Often, such a change triggers mixed responses from the public, ranging from praise for the paradigm shift, to indifference, to frustration about abolishing history.
Why does it matter? All I can say is why it matters to me.
I am a descendant of the first Indigenous People
My name is Joanne Nani Lewis. I am a member of the of the United Confederation of Taino People and a Bohio of Atabei Jaguar Warrior. That’s right, I am a descendant of the first Indigenous People who encountered Columbus lost at sea— the first to be colonized. Unfortunately, asserting my heritage wasn’t always possible.
Throughout my childhood, it was no secret that claiming Taino heritage was paralleled with witchcraft. Even in school, our history books read, “Columbus came, and the Indians died.”
I can still remember the smile on my teacher’s face when I asked, “Why do we look like the Indians?” “Ask your family,” was his only response. Although my unrelenting curiosity demanded the truth from my family, I wasn’t prepared for the pain I felt when my father finally admitted, we are Taino.
Discovering at a young age that, based on what we learned in school, I am a descendant of the “losers” filled me with shame.
We Honor Our Ancestors by Celebrating Our Culture
It took many years, but with the help of my family and my tribe, I realized rather than being a fortunate fluke, my very existence meant my ancestors resisted and survived the horrors of colonization for me to be here today. Every Indigenous person alive today is another win for our ancestors. Now, it is our turn to honor them by celebrating our culture.
As New Mexico celebrates its first official, state-wide Indigenous Peoples' Day, we join a growing number of states and communities replacing and renaming the federal holiday.
The movement to honor Native peoples on Columbus day originated in 1989 in South Dakota during its “Year of Reconciliation.” Now, at least 13 states and over 130 cities have adopted Indigenous Peoples' Day or Native American Day—even Washington, D.C. passed an emergency (and provisional) legislation last Tuesday to rename the holiday Indigenous Peoples' Day for 2019.
Although nearly 80% of people asked support Indigenous Peoples' Day, many who still don’t support the change claim we are “erasing our history.” Columbus will not disappear from history due to a holiday change. Renaming the holiday is not about erasing history, it’s about deciding as a nation whom we choose to honor.
Why Does Indigenous Peoples' Day Matter?
So, why does it matter?
To honor a people empowers them.
To honor restores identity.
To honor means to tell the authentic story of Native America.
We, as Native people, need to tell our stories. It is time to take the strength we inherited from our ancestors and honor them in this new era. Yes, it is just a day, but it is a day our future generations will celebrate with pride.
Native Hope envisions a world without barriers for Native people today and every day. Will you join us?