“…Crosses and diseases, whiskey and guns…” my journey toward Indigenous Peoples Day

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel with a colleague and some students and my family on a Maymester trip out west. We spent a week on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where we were able to learn from elders and other leaders about the land and some of the ways of life and culture of the Lakota people. Throughout the rest of our travels we also were able to visit the Crazy Horse memorial, the Wind Cave, the Little Bighorn Battlefield site, and Devil’s Tower. Spending time on native land was humbling for me, and eye opening, and every day I realized how much I didn’t know about Indigenous peoples.

One of the books we asked students to read before leaving for the trip was Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder by Kent Nerbern. The title of this blog post comes from the book. It is a powerful book for hearing stories from a Lakota elder as told to a white author. It is also powerful and humbling to see the author struggle with how to really hear the stories, and not to whitewash them. The book is a good teaching tool to better understand Native culture, It is also a good reflecting tool for members of the majority culture to ask ourselves what stereotypes we have been believing, and to ask how we have been complicit in cultural appropriation. (There are other questions we can ask ourselves as well, these are just the first two that come to mind!)

I have been thinking of this book lately (and apparently there is a film version of it) because of the approaching day that many people recognize as Columbus Day. Certainly, for most of my life that’s how I have referred to this Monday in October. However, I have been challenged in recent years to think about it as Indigenous Peoples Day. There are many reasons this shift is important but to me the most important reason is to stop glorifying someone who enslaved people and to recognize and honor instead the people who were here on the land when Europeans invaded it.

As usual, the Zinn Education Project has some great resources for teaching and learning about Indigenous Peoples Day: https://www.zinnedproject.org/campaigns/abolish-columbus-day/resources/ Teaching Tolerance has some great information as well: https://www.tolerance.org/the-moment/october-9-2020-indigenous-peoples-day-2020

In terms of social work education and other important topics for students to know about, I find that discussing the “boarding school movement” is really important, and can wake students up to clear examples of historical practices on the part of the government and well meaning church people that have contributed to challenges faced by some Indigenous people today. This is a helpful resource: https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/ and so is this one https://www.pbsutah.org/whatson/pbs-utah-productions/unspoken-americas-native-american-boarding-schools

Devil’s Tower

This of course is connected to the Indian Child Welfare Act. Originally passed in 1978, this legislation has been re-authorized regularly since then and yet there are still failures of the system in applying this law to Indigenous children and families, which further removes children from their culture in an already traumatic time. The National Indian Child Welfare Association is a great resource for all things ICWA: https://www.nicwa.org/

Finally, to circle back to the beginning of this post, here’s some history on the move to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day as opposed to Columbus Day: https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2020/10/09/indigenous-peoples-day-history/

"The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are" ~Maya Angelou

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