Reflections on Indigenous People’s Day
When I realized that the date for today is the U.S. holiday known as “Columbus Day” (for only the past 80 years), I wanted to say something to recognize and acknowledge the inaccuracy and pain associated with this holiday.
Since 1992 (starting in Berkeley where I live, woo!), individual cities in the United States have been voting to officially change it to be called Indigenous People’s Day. I firmly believe this is the right thing to do. While kids who went to elementary school in the U.S. were simply taught that Christopher Columbus “Discovered America,” there is a much darker and disturbing reality to what he did. It is almost undisputed that when he landed in the Americas (thinking it was India and claiming it for Spain), he treated the native people in the Caribbean (most notably the Taíno tribe) with the utmost dehumanization, committing murder, mutilation, forcing natives into slave labor to mine for gold, making native women into sex slaves, and more, all for colonization and conquest.
Don’t just take my word for it, because this seems to be common knowledge history for native/indigenous peoples. I recently watched a video of various Native American people giving a word association about Christopher Columbus, and many used words like “evil,” “murderer,” and “genocide” and were very emotional. While many of us in majority culture have been unaware of this side of the story, for this minority group in the U.S. especially, this history is all too real and tragic.
When I started to become aware of the atrocities Columbus committed, it served as another example of covering over shameful history for how it reflects on the legacy of white-European expansion in the world. As followers of Jesus, we are committed to truth and upholding the dignity of every human being and people group as created in the image of God (Imago Dei). For me, this has involved exploring my ethnic identity, which has shown me that I need to own this as one part of our long history in the U.S. of White-European supremacy and colonialism.
When white people like me hear about parts of history where people from white-European backgrounds oppressed and dehumanized people of color that we weren’t aware of, especially when it as any association with U.S. history or tradition, it is easy to react with denial or defensiveness. This is because of shame. We think this heaps on us an accusation that whiteness is inherently bad, that we are the bad guys. Or we are quick to say essentially “not all white people” either directly or implicitly. Shame-researcher and author Brené Brown shared a Facebook live video called “We need to keep talking about Charlottesville” in which she said that (paraphrased) unless we own our stories they will own us, and our country’s story is one of white-supremacy that we need to own. When I say white-supremacy, I’m afraid some might check out or dismiss it as simply referring to the overt forms of it (white-supremacy rallies, hate speech, racist violence, etc). However, the covert forms are more wide sweeping and subversive, including a failure by white people to take ethnic minority perspectives with the tacit assumption that their own perspective about race in America is the only valid or necessary one, which effectively silences and alienates ethnic minorities in our communities. I highly recommend watching Brené’s video, she touches on a lot of important things: https://www.facebook.com/brenebrown/videos/1778878652127236/
“When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” -Brené Brown
And what does it look like to own this story? To lament and to honor.
At our Cru national staff conference this summer, staff member Jimmy McGee talked about how the majority culture evangelical church in America basically doesn’t know how to lament. He defined Lament as passionate expression of grief or sorrow. McGee told us that lament is not a certificate or an event, it’s more like a visa that you need to continually get stamps on. Lament is not the same as catharsis, like telling people of color “I'm sorry” and having an emotional release, but then going back to status quo. In lament, there is hope for repentance. It means not being satisfied until something changes.
God says a lot about the importance of lament for his people in the bible. In Ezekiel 9 the only people in this text who get a pass are those who “Sigh and Groan”, who “grieve and lament.” In Ezekiel 16:48-50 Sodom was indicted because of “arrogance, living in luxury, and being unconcerned.”
If you want to watch Jimmy McGee’s talk, you can do so here.
I honestly had a lot of anxiety about writing this post because I was worried about not saying the perfect thing in the perfect way, but Brené reminded me in her video as well that “To opt-out of the [race] conversation because you can’t do it perfectly is the definition of privilege.” I don’t know everything about how to engage well about race and justice with by brothers and sisters of color, but despite the discomfort, God has been teaching me to do more self-reflection on what it means to be white and how I can first listen, grieve, and just sit and lament with people of color in their racial trauma and our racist history instead of rushing to fix things.
Another part of my staff conference this summer that was very moving and made me proud was an honoring ceremony for the Native American people of the community, dozens of which were in attendance. The conference was held at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and I appreciated that it was acknowledged that even the space that we were meeting in is land stolen from the Indigenous people who lived there before. During this time, quilts were given in honor of the elders of the Fort Collins Native community, and I felt very emotional and grateful to witness such a dignifying and beautiful moment. I think this moment represents what it looks like to start owning our story so we can write a brave an beautiful new ending.
However you go about honoring and recognizing Indigenous People’s day, remember that they are not history, they are with us and their story needs to be heard. Talk about Indigenous People day, post about it, be curious and research more about Native cultures and history, or celebrate by going to the 25th anniversary Indigenous People’s Festival at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park between 10am and 6pm on the 14th =).