There's a whole new world under that rock.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is being recognized and celebrated in a growing number of cities across the country, including right here in the Washington region. The District and other local jurisdictions — including Alexandria, Prince George’s County and Takoma Park — have passed legislation to change the Columbus Day name in honor of Native Americans.
So, what does this day really mean to Native people? And why is it important to shine a light on the indigenous history of our region?
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Kevin Gover Director, Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; Enrolled Citizen, Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma
- Elizabeth Rule Postdoctoral Fellow, American University; Enrolled Citizen, Chickasaw Nation
- Crystal Proctor Executive Producer, Piscataway Public Programming: Living the American Indian Experience
- Natalie Proctor Tribal Chairwoman, Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians Wild Turkey Clan
National Museum of the American Indian
NMAI is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere through partnership with Native people and others. The museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tune in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Indigenous Peoples' Day is being recognized and celebrated in a growing number of cities across the country, including right here in the Washington region. The District, Alexandria, Prince George's County and Takoma Park have all passed legislation to change the Columbus Day name in honor of Native Americans. So what does this day really mean to native people and why is it important to shine a light on the indigenous history of our region. Joining me in studio is Kevin Gover. He is director the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He is also a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Kevin Gover, thank you so much for joining us.
KEVIN GOVERYou're welcome. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIThis past decade, more than 130 cities have declared the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples' Day or Native American Day moving away from what was once a celebration of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. The nation's capital is celebrating its first Indigenous Peoples' Day this year. What does that mean to you personally?
GOVERWell, I was surprised of course the sudden vote of the D.C. City Council, because we had not heard a lot of conversation about it before. But in general I think this marks a growing acknowledgement of the Native American narrative of the creation of the United States and the colonization of the western hemisphere. So it's all to the good. What's really important here is the conversation itself that people are discussing this issue that they're beginning to understand the actual acts of Christopher Columbus and perhaps thinking maybe this is not somebody that we should celebrate.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that this was introduced by D.C. Councilmember David Grosso into the D.C. Council. And I think we have David Grosso on the line right now. Councilmember David Grosso, thank you for joining us.
DAVID GROSSOWell, thanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou proposed the emergency legislation last week that led to the name change for this holiday in the District. What for you is the significance of this shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day?
GROSSOKojo, it's really twofold for me. One and first and foremost is to recognize the people that were hear before European colonization happened who helped build this country at the beginning of time. And then it's also, I think, to recognize as Kevin Gover said that Christopher Columbus is not somebody we should be celebrating. He never actually set foot on the land of the United States. And has a horrible history that we've begun to understand over time of just torturing people, murdering people, just decimating the native peoples in Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean. So it's really twofold for me, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis is something that councilmembers have been attempting to do since 2015. How and why did it work this time?
GROSSOThat's right. We've had, I think, a majority of the Council trying to make this happen led by my colleague Anita Bonds as well as myself, and the fact of the matter is that Chairman Mendelson simply didn't support it. So we decided that it would be better to try to do this on an emergency basis, which is a bigger hurdle to overcome. You have to get nine out of 13 councilmembers to vote for it. Ultimately we got 11 councilmembers to vote for it. To his credit once the chairman saw the super majority he did expedite signing the legislation along with the mayor in order to make sure that we could actually have today be designated as Indigenous Peoples' Day.
NNAMDISo is this a permanent change?
GROSSOThis is not permanent. We still need to advocate on behalf of the permanent legislation. There needs to be a hearing and we need to move it forward through the full Council. But this is in effect for this year and for another 250 days or so, which gives us time to not have a gap as long as Chairman Mendelson agrees to move it through the committee as a whole we can sure pass it through the Council as it's been demonstrated by the vote on the emergency.
NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us.
GROSSOThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIDavid Grosso is an At-Large member of the D.C. Council, who proposed emergency legislation last week to rename Monday's holiday Indigenous Peoples' Day. They could not join us today, but last week we heard from Natalie and Crystal Proctor. A mother and daughter who are both members of the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, Wild Turkey Clan, a tribe located in Prince George's County, Maryland. Natalie is Tribal Chairwoman and her daughter Crystal is Executive Producer of Piscataway Public Programming. Here is Crystal talking about the significance of Indigenous Peoples' Day for her.
CRYSTAL PROCTORIndigenous Peoples' Day is kind of every day for us as Piscataway people and particularly for me living as a Piscataway person here in the Washington D.C. area. A big part of my everyday life and what I do for my job is to teach and share and educate people specifically indigenous and Piscataway, local Piscataway opportunities and issues and things that we are dealing with on a daily basis, also to, you know, broaden that spectrum and talk a little bit more about the Chesapeake Indigenous people, so the people of Virginia and the peoples of Delaware as well, and the things that they deal with, the opportunities that are coming for them, and to talk a little bit more about who they are and their history. Specifically Indigenous Peoples' Day allows me to give an opportunity to meet up with local organization and other groups of people who are bringing the awareness that Columbus Day is not such a good thing.
CRYSTAL PROCTORAnd that we should instead of focusing on that rewrite history in a way and bring awareness to the first peoples of the Americas. And it's a very special place to be now and time to be here in Washington D.C. to kind of focus on that. And I've been working very hard for, I guess, for the past six years to really amp up the idea of, we're still here, especially Piscataway people because most people don't know that, you know, Piscataway people still live in this area and that we are amongst you. We work with you. We got to school with you. We're at the McDonald's with you. And because quite often we don't have our regalia on and our feathers on, you don't see us as that. So, it brings an opportunity to share the awareness that, hey, we still are here and we're reaching out to you to share that history, the first history of Washington D.C., the nation's capital.
CRYSTAL PROCTORAnd if you are from this region and area this is your history. This is the first history. So, it brings an opportunity for me to continue to send out that message and to, you know, reach a broader audience.
NNAMDIThat was Crystal Proctor of the Piscataway Tribe. Joining me in studio is Kevin Gover. He is Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Kevin Gover, why is it important to shine a light on Indigenous history and native issues?
GOVERWell, you can't tell American history without telling the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas first of all. Second, it helps -- from our perspective it really helps people understand contemporary context and conflict between Native American people and their neighbors. We're still fighting issues around water rights, land rights, treaty, hunting and fishing rights at the environment. And most people, because they haven't been well-informed about Native American history really don't have the means to fairly evaluate those conflicts. So, we want people to know more about Native American history so that they can understand those conflicts and perhaps be more receptive to our perspectives on these issues.
NNAMDIIn our interview last week, Crystal Proctor spoke to her own feelings about Columbus Day. Here she is.
PROCTORWe've had this discussion a couple of times, Natalie and I, about, you know, when I would say growing up as a child in this area and, you know, having off school and having off work for Columbus Day and, you know, what has it really meant to anyone to be honest, not just us, but us as citizens of America not just indigenous people. But it's to us it's been another day off of work or school. And maybe for, you know, the Italian people this is something that is very unique and special to them. We have an understanding of that. But for people in general what does it really mean, Columbus Day, what are we really celebrating?
PROCTORI guess for me personally talking and speaking for me only, I guess I feel like I just didn't have so much of a gripe with it because it wasn't so much of a celebration happening behind it. I have a little bit more of a disdain for Thanksgiving than I do Columbus Day. But again, of course, being a part of the Free World, you know, I can celebrate what I would like and how I would like to. So, you know, that's the special part. So for us, I think, especially for us through the Cedarville Band we try to just not focus on it whatsoever to bring attention to it. But to continue to promote and encourage true history and through the people who lived it and continue to live it.
PROCTORSo, you know, it can be a touchy subject. And, you know, for me I'm grateful that it has now changed. But, you know, then the question will rise, you know, is it necessary at this point. Like is it something that has to happen now? You know, considering the things that we still deal with and the things that we still have issues with. Is this that important?
NNAMDIIs it, Kevin Gover, or is it merely symbolic?
GOVERNo. It's tremendously important. Look we grew up in a time -- I grew up in a time when I was being taught that Columbus was a hero. That he had discovered America. That he was the only who knew that the world wasn't flat. These were all myths, of course, but underlying them is a very troubling foundation and that is a foundation of white supremacy. So as a kid growing up being taught these stories being taught that General Custer was a hero gave me the message that there was something wrong with Indians.
GOVERAnd that I can fairly say that in my entire time in public school I never learned anything about my ancestors that made me proud of them. And that's devastating to a kid, because an Indian kid is just as likely to learn and interpret this material as supporting white supremacy and believing in white supremacy and that's just a terrible thing. So this acknowledgement where not just Indian people, but all people are celebrating the achievements of Native America is nothing but good for our kids, and for all kids frankly.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we will continue this conversation about Indigenous Peoples' Day. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We are discussing what the District of Columbia a few other jurisdictions in this region and more than 100 cities across the country are celebrating today. It's called Indigenous Peoples' Day. It was formerly known here and in those cities as Columbus Day. We're talking with Kevin Gover. He is Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He is a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Joining us now from studios in Dublin, Ireland is Elizabeth Rule. Elizabeth is a postdoctoral Fellow in American's University official Race, Gender, and Cultural Studies Collaborative, and an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Elizabeth Rule, thank you for joining us.
ELIZABETH RULEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou, like Kevin, grew up having this holiday off from school. What did it mean for you and your family? And how does it feel now that so many municipalities are moving toward a celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day?
RULEWell, the move toward Indigenous Peoples' Day I think is absolutely fantastic. As you said, when I was growing up as a child we had the day off of school. Some folks had the day off from work. And my family always had internal conversations about Columbus Day being a day that we used for mourning, right? And for remembrance about the atrocities that, you know, were committed upon Columbus's arrival into the Americas. But I really appreciate about Indigenous Peoples' Day is that it's moving the narrative from one focused on those atrocities and on that violence to one that actually celebrates indigenous people's strength, resilience, diversity and the fact that our cultures are still here.
NNAMDIFor you and for listeners who might not know, can you reiterate what Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrates?
RULESure. Indigenous Peoples' Day, you know, is a substitute for Columbus Day. And it's a reclamation of that day carving out a single day in our national consciousness where we focus on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, right, a transnational day of recognition focused on indigenous survival, resilience, the strength and beauty of our cultures. And the fact that every indigenous person, right, like myself and like the other guests on this show for example, you know, we are descended from ancestors, who survived the legacies of these atrocities brought by Columbus and others like him and who worked with him.
RULESo it's a day that's both tragic in some ways, right, to remember this history, but it's also a day of real celebration and strength to remember, you know, that we're here. Our cultures are strong. We're surviving. You know, we're contemporary indigenous peoples and that's something to be very proud of and to celebrate.
NNAMDIWe just spoke with D.C. Councilmember David Grosso a little while ago. He is the one who introduced the emergency legislation that is making Indigenous Peoples' Day this year a reality in Washington D.C. and hopes to be able to make it permanent. But there have been attempts to change the name of Columbus Day before right here in Washington. Elizabeth, why were they unsuccessful?
RULEWell, I think there are various reasons why the attempts before were unsuccessful, but I have to say I commend this latest effort and particularly the move to introduce it as emergency legislation. I think that that particular tactic, you know, was successful and accurately represents the situation on the ground because, you know, indigenous peoples -- although Indigenous Peoples' Day is a celebration of that resilience, indigenous peoples in tribal nations across the country do continue to face in many ways the legacy of that violence that Columbus left.
RULESo I think the move, you know, to give it that urgency, right? And to introduce it as emergency legislation, you know, is particularly apt here, because there is a criticality to it and there is a timeliness to it that, you know, this is an important moment that needs to be, you know, recognized and important legislation that needed to be pushed through.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Constance in Silver Spring who writes, I'd much prefer Indigenous Peoples' Day. Columbus wasn't the kind of person who deserves to be celebrated. Indigenous peoples took great care of this continent and in my opinion are still the rightful owners. Columbus's arrival was just the first of many catastrophes. Well, some I suspect would beg to differ. Joining us now by phone if Rafael Ortiz. He is the author of several books defending Christopher Columbus and his legacy. Rafael Ortiz, thank you for joining us.
RAFAEL ORTIZThank you for letting me be in your show.
NNAMDIRafael, what do you think about this movement away from a celebration of Columbus?
ORTIZIt's not necessary to have an Indigenous Peoples' Day, because today is Columbus Day number one. And they are not one, but two Indigenous Peoples' Day. One was in August 9th and it's also known as the international day of the whole of the world's indigenous peoples. And the next one is next month, which is also known American Indian Heritage Day, November the 29th. And also in November is Native American Heritage Month. So what else do they want? And also I'm indigenous too. I'm Hispanic. I have the blood of the Taíno that they claim Columbus killed, and that's not true. All this people what they are doing is repeating misinformation and propaganda and they are making us to look like bad people. You know, today somebody put on my page "F Christopher Columbus" on my page.
ORTIZOur studies have been vandalized. But it's a museum of history -- it's called the history of Italian immigration. You see, and it was vandalized last year. So you see they are making us look like we are supporting a white supremacist, a racist man, a (word?) maniac. And they think because we are supporting supposedly that bad guy they have the license to lie about us and to destroy and to vandalize and to keep repeating propaganda.
NNAMDIWell, obviously, Rafael, vandalizing and using profanity on your Facebook page is not something that we approve or anyone else would. But why do you think that Columbus Day should continue to be celebrated? What do you think Columbus brought to this land that should be celebrated?
ORTIZWell, number one, I also am in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. And every pro-Columbus group we all support Columbus Day -- I mean, I'm sorry, Indigenous Peoples' Day.
ORTIZWe just don't want it to be replaced. Columbus -- and also you had somebody earlier saying that Columbus never reached North America, which is true. But Amerigo Vespucci did not reach North America either, but still it's named America. And the reason it's named America is because Amerigo -- because when Columbus became famous people started to either trying to diminish his accomplishment, like, they're doing today or giving the accomplishment to somebody else like they're doing today. So Amerigo Vespucci, he claimed that he reached the continent South America before Columbus when it was not true. So that's why it's named America.
NNAMDISo it is your view that nobody from Europe reached here before Columbus. That would include the Spaniards.
ORTIZWell, the only other people that we know are the Vikings, but people don't understand the story. (unintelligible) the Vikings were living in Greenland. We searched for the maps back then. It was spelled Thule, T-H-U-L-E. That's where the maps end. People believe that in between Thule and the Indies there was nothing but water. And Columbus challenged the myth of the day that he would cross purposely to the other side. People called back then the Atlantic the sea of darkness. So he went against all odds. Portugal said, no. You cannot do it. Spain told him to wait. By the way, that's another thing.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, we're running out of time very quickly. I just wanted to underscore that you feel that there should be an Indigenous Peoples' Day, but that it should not replace Columbus Day.
NNAMDISo Rafael Ortiz, thank you very much for joining us. We also received a statement from the National Christopher Columbus Association, which sponsors the annual Columbus Day ceremonies at the Christopher Columbus memorial outside D.C.'s Union Station.
NNAMDIThe statement reads, "We celebrate Columbus Day for what it has meant to millions of immigrants to this country that were discriminated against for their culture and religion. The first Columbus Day was opposed by the nativists of the time. Columbus Day gave validation to those immigrants that they too were fully American. To take away Columbus Day only promotes more unnecessary divisiveness. Many who want to replace Columbus Day claim that Columbus did horrible things and was responsible for atrocities against the native people. Most all of these allegations can be refuted by reading the original sources of the time. The National Christopher Columbus Association supports a holiday that recognizes indigenous people and encourages a celebration of their history and culture. It should not however replace Columbus Day. We can do both rather than remove a holiday that so many celebrate with a sense of pride for what it means to their culture and history."
NNAMDIKevin Gover and Elizabeth Rule, a lot of people think of Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian American Heritage. There's a piece in the New York Times by one of their editors Brent Staples that talks about the fact that in 1892, 12 Italians were lynched in New Orleans and that one of the reason for this holiday coming about in the first place was to instill some sense of pride into people who were being discriminated against and who had violence perpetrated against them. So, starting with you, Elizabeth, how would you respond to someone who makes this argument for the why the day should be left alone?
RULEWell, I think you really actually hit the nail on the head when you read this statement of the group that supports keeping Columbus Day as a holiday, right. The way that they are talking about indigenous peoples is as a historical group, right? The history and culture of native peoples, and it's not recognizing that continuing to celebrate Columbus Day on a national level, right, where we shine a spotlight on a person, who brought, you know, such violence and suffering and atrocities to the Americas. You know, we're not thinking about how that celebration continues to affect native peoples today. Right, what message is it sending to native youth, right, when they have off school or when folks have off work, or when there are parades in the streets, right, and celebrations? I don't think anyone is trying to take anything away from Italian Americans.
RULEAnd I certainly don't support, you know, the violence or vandalism that was discussed by our previous caller or by, you know, the historical, you know, lynching of Italian Americans. But the fact is that, you know, the statement itself is not recognizing native people as contemporary modern peoples who continue to be hurt by the celebration of this day, because the celebration of this day is celebrating the legacy of violence against our people.
NNAMDIKevin Gover, we need to talk about Christopher Columbus and to debunk a few myths. What can you tell us about the real Columbus?
GOVERIt's really undisputed among real historians that Columbus enslaved, murdered. His men and raped and pillaged a very prosperous people living in the Caribbean. And any efforts, you know, by these folks to say that none of that is true, well, you know, that's denial of the worst kind. It is true. We know that from Columbus's own journals. We know that from the journals of people like Bartolomé de las Casas, the priest who observed and reported on the outrageous conduct of his men. You know, Columbus was recalled and put on trial back in Spain for the outrages he was committing. So, there's no rehabilitating Columbus as a historical figure. He was a bad guy.
GOVERNow, I do want to say, though, that I hear the hurt behind, you know, the folks who are supporting this holiday. And I want to be clear about a couple of things. First of all, none of us alive today did any of those things to each other or suffered those things. And so we're not saying that if you support this, you're a bad guy who would do the kinds of things that Columbus did.
GOVERSecond, I agree that the origins of Columbus Day really had to do with the discrimination against Italian Americans. And I understand that it was an important acknowledgement of their American-ness to establish a Columbus Day. But I think there are clearly other great ways that the Italian American community can be acknowledged without sort of having this particular guy carry that banner.
NNAMDIElizabeth Rule, you trace much of the dehumanization that native women in particular endure to this history of violence and colonialism. Can you tell us more about that?
RULESure, absolutely. Well, as many of the listeners may know, we are currently in the middle of a movement around missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. This is a transnational movement. And although I describe it as a movement, that's a way to describe that we have a renewed focus on that issue right now. But the issue of violence itself is not new.
RULEThe violence against indigenous women and girls, as we've heard, you know, goes back to, you know, early moments of contact between settlers, right, European explorers and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And as Mr. Gover said, it's undisputed, if you look at the historical documents, that there are very clear documentations of rape, right, of sexual violence, enslavement, mass killings, right, both against indigenous women, indigenous men, and also indigenous children.
RULESo, my research focuses on that legacy of violence as we see it today, but it started in those very early historical moments. And going back to what I was saying earlier about, again, the contemporary consequences of celebrating Columbus Day, although, like Mr. Gover said, no one is saying that anyone alive today experienced that particular violence or would perpetrate that particular violence today, we do see that the legacy of violence is still very much a pressing matter, and that people are suffering very real material and physical consequences of that legacy of dehumanization. And that's why, again, you know, continuing to hold up and celebrate someone who perpetrated such harm against our indigenous communities is really, again, sending the message that those indigenous lives don't matter, that violence against native women, you know, is something that can be overlooked in light of his other, you know, accomplishments, if you want to call them that.
RULEAnd so that's why, again, you know, we need to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day and change that narrative around the perpetration of violence to one of survival of that violence, even though we still see the legacies playing out in very real ways in our communities today.
NNAMDIGot an email from Inez Martinez: I have lived over half a century and just learned how Native American names permeate our lives through naming of our states, cities, rivers and more. Kevin, a key element here seems to be the educational, perhaps, miseducation that most children in American are receiving when it comes to native history and culture. How would you describe your own early education on the indigenous history of the United States?
GOVEROh, it was terrible. It was terrible. I mean, the person whose email you read has it exactly right. I mean, I was well into my life before I learned that a lot of the things that I was taught in grade school and junior high simply were untrue. And it was not just frustrating. It really made me very angry, because I had to think through, how is it that Indians accomplished so little? How is it that they were so easily defeated? Because that was the basic narrative. And it turns out neither of those things was true.
GOVERSo, one of the things we're doing at the museum, by the way, is creating educational materials for the use of classroom teachers, so that they don't have to just live with what the textbooks are saying. They can have material to present these stories to their students in a much different way and in a way that really is empowering, not just to the Indian kids, but to all kids. It's very important.
GOVERYou know, how is it that we get to the middle of our lives not knowing that the Potomac River -- Potomac is an Indian word, Anacostia is an Indian word. Susquehanna, Rappahannock, all of those, and these place names that are all around us are Indian. And yet we don't stop to think about it, but the very least that should happen is that we get taught in school. So, once again, we can understand how many different kinds of people contributed to what is now the United States.
NNAMDINatalie Proctor, tribal chairwoman of the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians Wild Turkey Clan spoke with us last week about her own early experiences in the classrooms. Here's Natalie.
NATALIE PROCTORIn my 60 years of being here, I remember in my history class, history started with pretty much after European contact, and then went forward from there. And as an indigenous person sitting in a classroom, going, uh, hello, what about me? There's an indigenous person in your classroom, and you're just totally ignoring the fact that we were here. The gifts that we presented and all that Americans benefit from today are not being taught at all.
NATALIE PROCTORAnd so with this Indigenous Day, I'm hoping that it'd be more about educating on things that are totally not taught in school at all. There's just so much that you can glean and could probably teach all year long according to the seasons, and would make Indigenous Day a more important day.
NNAMDIThat was Natalie Proctor, tribal chairwoman of the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians Wild Turkey Clan. Elizabeth, what did you learn about your own tribe in school?
RULEI did not learn anything about my own tribe, except our experience as one of the tribes who was removed from our homelands in the Eastern United States to Oklahoma, to Indian territory as part of the Trail of Tears. So, you know, I really want to underscore what, you know, has been said so far about the history of native peoples and how it's been taught when it's taught. It's one of violence, right. It's one of native peoples being sort of, you know, welcomers, right, of European explorers and settlers.
RULEBut we don't see, again, the realities and the full perspective of the indigenous experience represented in classrooms today. Oftentimes, when native peoples are presented, again, they're presented as historical figures, right. And that's where we get the trope of the noble savage, right, or of the violent Indian, right, that is the enemy to the nation. So, again, you know, we have very limited representations of native peoples. When we do have those representations, nine times out of 10, they're inaccurate.
RULEAnd, you know, going back to our larger conversation about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, you know, that's a time when people can show, you know, their pride in their culture, their pride in their identity, who they are. And I think it serves, again, that same moment of educational opportunity, right, where we're switching the legacy away from one of violence and destruction and erasure to one of presence, right, and to looking at the accomplishments of native peoples today and the fact that we're still here.
RULEYou know, a lot of native peoples in my own circles use this day to wear traditional clothes or to wear moccasins. And even though small, individual acts, right, of native peoples, maybe you're the only native person in your particular office, but you wear a piece of your tribal regalia or a traditional outfit to work, what kinds of opportunities for conversation are you opening up because of this movement toward Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to, the number's 800-433-8850. What do you remember learning about Native Americans when you were in school? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is being celebrated today in the District of Columbia and in several jurisdictions in this region, and more than 130 cities around the country. We're talking with Elizabeth Rule. She's a postdoctoral fellow in American University's Critical Race, Gender and Culture Studies Collaborative, and an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from J.C. Thomas, who says: fourth graders in Fairfax County Public Schools, and hopefully across Virginia, learn a lot about Virginia's indigenous people, including the influence of their language, where and how different tribes live, and how they adapted to their environments throughout the year, their role in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, which tribes are recognized by the state today and how they live. Schools are doing a lot now to make up for past inadequacies and injustices in curriculum. Perhaps not enough, but nothing.
NNAMDIKevin Gover, you're in your 12th year as director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and you talked about providing resources to teachers who want to educate kids about indigenous history. But where can teachers find those materials so they can begin incorporating them into their own school curriculum?
GOVERYou know, it's not easy. None of the major publishers are really producing things that are useful, or even accurate. And so, unfortunately, a teacher is left to really do a lot of their own work. And, as you well know, once you enter the internet, it's very difficult to know what is reliable material and what is not. And that's much of the reason why we wanted to start publishing some things online.
GOVERI think if you look to the universities, to the major Native American studies programs, they're not hard to find online. You will also find that some states are producing their own materials. The states of Washington and Montana now require that kind of curriculum. And so, it's out there. And we're working to try to assemble all of that into a bundle to really take a lot of the work out of it for the teachers and have one place to go where they can find this stuff.
NNAMDIToday's Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the District and a lot of people, though obviously not all, have the day off. What are some of the things they could discover if they come to the National Museum of the American Indian today?
GOVERFirst of all, don't come to our museum without stopping in our café and eating some of the native foods. We have salmon, bison, wild rice. We have the three sisters, corn, beans and squash.
NNAMDIStop, it's lunchtime. (laugh)
GOVERAnd then sort of these modern concoctions. There's chili, there's a bison hotdog, there are bison burgers. So, please come on down to the museum. The second, though, and to our conversation today, is we have an exhibition called Americans. And in there, we explore how Indians are portrayed in the popular culture in the United States, and how they've been portrayed historically.
GOVERAnd then we take on some well-known Indian stories. If you went to school at the time I did, you surely learned about Pocahontas, you learned about the Trail of Tears and you learned about Little Big Horn. The problem is almost everything that we learned, at least at that time, about these events were all wrong. Nevertheless, they remain central to the American narrative, and we're really curious about that. And we want our visitors to be curious about it and look at, here's the story you learned, here's what really happened. How are they different, and why? Why are these stories still part of our national narrative?
NNAMDIOn, now, to Mary in northern Virginia. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYOkay. My comment is, I'm all for celebrating indigenous peoples and their accomplishments and all we owe to them, but simply changing Columbus Day, to me, is a little bit questionable. Without minimizing the effects and the impacts on native cultures, shouldn't we celebrate the notion of exploration itself? Curiosity about what's around the next bend, across the sea, up in the sky? It's part of what makes us human. Although we should feel guilty about the negatives, where would we be if no one had been curious or brave enough to venture forth from their own little village?
NNAMDICare to respond to that, Kevin Gover?
GOVERYes. Well, first of all, don't feel guilty. There's no reason to feel guilty. You didn't do anything. None of us who are around today did any of that stuff, so let's not worry about that. And second, you're absolutely right, we should celebrate the idea of exploration. Imagine the first people to set foot in the Western Hemisphere, and we still are trying to understand how they got here. The land bridge theory has been blown up, and we know that they were here long before the land bridge formed. So, why not celebrate those explorers?
GOVERAnd all we're saying here is that this particular individual is not the one that we should choose to celebrate either Italian American heritage or American history. He was a bad guy. And imagine who else comes out of Italian history? Galileo, for one. Imagine (laugh) a world without Galileo's discoveries. So, you know, it's really not a question of should we celebrate these things. It's should we celebrate this individual.
NNAMDIHere is Ryan in Silver Spring, Maryland. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANThanks so much, Kojo. I wanted to say that in addition to the celebration of native people in the United States, there are indigenous people all over the world, certainly the entire Western Hemisphere, arguably the areas that were conquered by Spain, most of Africa and areas that were conquered by other European countries, Southeast Asia, and pretty much everywhere you go. There are indigenous people still today who are the descendents of people who were displaced or victimized or otherwise taken over by either European conquerors or conquerors from other now ethnically dominant populations.
RYANAnd so I think it's extremely important to think of today as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to be really honest, as honest as we can with children, about what happened after Columbus arrived here. But also to think about this globally in terms of all of the actions that were taken to harm and displace indigenous people, and the repercussions we still see today.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Elizabeth, we need to talk a little bit about the name of our own Washington football team, which is a dictionary-defined racial slur. What impact do these words and imagery have on you?
RULESure. Well, here in Washington, D.C., a place where I, as a contemporary native woman, live, you know, we're surrounded by these negative images and representations and ideas of indigenous peoples. And the Washington team is a perfect example of that. So, in addition to myself, you know, and my own experiences in witnessing, you know, billboards and T-shirts, and so on, I also hear feedback from the indigenous students that I work with. So, in addition to my position at American University, I'm also the assistant director of the AT&T Center for indigenous politics and policy at the George Washington University.
RULEAnd both there and at American University, I have the pleasure of working with indigenous students who identify as indigenous both from the United States, and from other countries all around the world. And when they're here in Washington, D.C., oftentimes, they really feel isolated and marginalized because we have these images of the football team, right, that people are rallying around and celebrating, right, a racial slur. You know, we have it -- again, to get back to our conversation today about Indigenous Peoples’ Day -- another legacy of violence and erasure of native peoples that is celebrated on a national scale.
RULESo, what I have seen from my own experience and from the native students and native youth that I talk with is that it does take a very real toll on them and their sense of belonging and their sense of place in the city. And I think it sends a particularly powerful message coming from the nation’s capital, right, from the seat of power in our country, you know, and a place that's recognized for its political influence all around the world.
RULEYou know, when we make the oppression of native peoples and negative ideas and images and terms used to describe indigenous peoples' part of the D.C. experience, we're really reflecting on a larger, sort of national level our values as a country.
RULEAnd again, you know, back to Mr. Gover's point, it's not that, you know, discovery is not something to be celebrated, and it's not any sort of slight at the Italian American community, their contributions to this, you know, country and everything, and their own experiences of discrimination. But to have a team like the Washington team with its racial slur name and to have Columbus Day, both of those are moments where, on a national level, Americans are rallying around something that dehumanizes indigenous peoples. And that's what I want to get away from.
NNAMDIWhen you talk about that name, you can't help talking about someone that Kevin and I were talking about off-air earlier, and that is Suzanne Shown Harjo, who has been campaigning against that for decades, since the early 1970s, when I first met her. But, Kevin, lastly I'd like to talk about this phenomenon because it is extraordinary. Native people have served in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. What are the reasons for that?
GOVERWell, it is extraordinary. And, you know, I've spent a lot of time -- we're developing a National Native American Veterans Memorial at the museum, and I've spent a lot of time in the last three or four years traveling around Indian country, working with the tribes, letting them know we're going to build this, asking for their ideas and asking that question. Why is it that Native Americans serve at such an extraordinary rate?
GOVERThroughout the 20th century, Native Americans served at a higher rate than any other group of people. And, you know, the question is, knowing all that you know, knowing that the United States has treated Native American people badly, have broken the treaties, have violated our rights, why would you choose to serve them? And they look at you like you've got a third eye, you know. Like, is something wrong with you? Of course we're going to serve. This is our country.
GOVERAnd that's what's so interesting to me. It's really a simple proposition that you can know the hard things about our history, the things that we wish hadn't happened, the things that, yeah, now we're ashamed of as a country, and still love this country. And that's what it comes down to. They love America. They love this place, and they're always going to fight to defend it.
GOVERAnd the other thing, Kojo, I've got to say, it's just so moving working with them, because you've never met such regular, humble people. They're just good folks, except they did something extraordinary, and they went and put their lives on the line for this country.
NNAMDIThe Native Americans Veterans Memorial designed by Harvey Pratt, a veteran and a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, is coming to the American Indian Museum in the year 2020. You will need to be looking out for that. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Elizabeth Rule is a postdoctoral fellow in American University's critical race, gender and culture studies collaborative, and an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. She joined us from studios in Dublin, Ireland. Elizabeth Rule, thank you for joining us.
RULEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIKevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Kevin Gover, a pleasure.
GOVERIt's been a pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, one in four women veterans experience sexual harassments at VA hospital. Now, an incident at D.C.'s VA Medical Center is prompting calls for change. And we also meet a local author whose new anthology highlights the complexity of Alzheimer's Disease. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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