California Native American Day

In 1939, California Gov. Culbert Olson declared October 1 as ‘Indian Day.’ It was one of the first days established to recognize Native Americans and their cultures across the country.

Then in 1968, Gov. Ronald Reagan declared the fourth Friday of September as ‘California Indian Day’ and the state continues to celebrate this occasion today. Next week, we look forward to Native American Day in California.

Traction has grown over the years for formalizing holidays celebrating Native peoples and cultures. Even now, push for an important shift and removal of Columbus Day knocks on the doors of many other cities.

For many non-Natives, it may be hard to remember why this push started, or why it’s needed in the first place. After all, history classes teach that Christopher Columbus was the one who ‘discovered’ America, and this ‘discovery’ led to the 13 colonies being established by England.

However, many Indigenous Americans take offense when the “discovery” of America is credited to Christopher Columbus. More than that, it can be appalling when a figure like Columbus is even considered for any kind of celebration.

Time after time, Columbus has been shown to be a man who explored the world, but he was also a cruel man. In his journal, he recorded his intentions regarding the tribes he encountered – and it’s easy to see they were malicious and self-serving. One of Columbus’ first Indigenous encounters was with the Taino of the Caribbean, of whom he said:

“They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces…they do not carry arms or know them… they should be good servants.”

In his travels, Columbus was no stranger to slave trade, prostitution and even genocide.  A man who commits acts such as these should not be celebrated. Taught about, sure, but only to understand how his actions and mindset influenced first encounters between the First Americans and European settlers.

Even though Columbus mostly travelled the Caribbean and parts of coastal Central and South America, he represents for many Indigenous peoples the first encounter with Europeans. Contempt for his behaviors is connected not only with the man himself but also with the conquerors who followed him years later. Thus, celebrating Columbus is viewed as also celebrating the actions of those conquerors.

Whatever your state calls the holiday – Native American Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, American Indian Day – celebrating our First Nations is important as it’s easy to forget a time when genocide and assimilation decimated our lifestyles and limited practice of our traditions. Instead of Columbus Day, we celebrate the survival of our cultures and the beauty in the uniqueness of Indigenous peoples. We remember that not all tribes were fortunate enough to have survived – and we remember our ancestors who did not.

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