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Full day of events scheduled for Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations at OU

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NORMAN, Okla. – On Monday, University of Oklahoma President David Boren issued a proclamation recognizing the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Boren’s proclamation was the result of months of organizing and petitioning by Indigenous leaders from around the state. Organizers with Indigenize OU collected hundreds of letters of support from OU faculty, staff, and students urging the administration to adopt a resolution that would effectively replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Following Boren’s proclamation, student organizers with OU’s Native American Student Association announced a full schedule of events marking the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The daylong series of events will host speakers and festivities, including games of stickball, hand drumming, and community round dancing. At 9 a.m., Boren will participate in a signing ceremony of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution.

Ashley Nicole McCray, an organizer with Indigenize OU and a co-author of the resolution, helped lead the grassroots effort to declare Oct. 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day at OU. “It feels like the university is opening the door to hearing and learning from the actual lived experiences of native students at OU,” McCray said.

In previous weeks, McCray and fellow organizers presented their resolution along with letters of support to OU’s Graduate Student Senate and the undergraduate Student Government Association. At both meetings, the student government bodies supported the resolution by a wide margin.

McCray says restoring justice to the native community is important and necessary work. Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s day is an important step in that direction. On Boren’s proclamation which was announced Monday, McCray said, “I am grateful President Boren is proactive, but I would have liked to have seen a more direct and intentional statement that acknowledges the university should consider it their mission to ensure the safety and well-being of communities of color by standing up against injustice.”

While most agree the Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution is a positive step forward, and symbolically important, some also see it as a necessary act of attrition – an easing of the centuries-long hostilities against Indigenous people. Those hostilities continue to this day through false representations, skewed narratives, as well as historical inaccuracies perpetuated through popular culture and the mass media.

History

Institutionalized racism against native peoples in the U.S. has been entrenched through a long history of violent dislocations, dispossessions, and genocide. Displacement, prolonged warfare against native populations, and epidemics caused by the introduction of European crowd diseases by settlers and colonists resulted in a massive population collapse among indigenous people.  Native populations reached a low of 250,000 by 1890-1900. According to some scholars, those numbers are close to extinction. In fact, many original American Indians tribes are now acknowledged as extinct.

By some estimates, North American territories were once home to as many as 18 million Indigenous people. According to 2013 U.S. census figures, the Indigenous population in the United States now stands at about 5.2 million. Because tribes relied heavily on oral traditions to preserve and transmit cultural knowledge, much of that traditional knowledge, cultural practices and tribal histories, are lost forever and impossible to recover.

By the early 20th century, after Native populations finally began rebounding from the population collapse, the U.S. government dealt another blow to native identity with the forced boarding school programs. U.S. policy toward American Indians became one of re-education and assimilation into white society. “Kill the Indian, and save the man” was the motto espoused by military leaders who favored this view. At that time, this was considered to be a humanitarian alternative to the policy of total war against the resisting Indian tribes.

The survival of Indigenous languages was also jeopardized by the collapse of native populations.  U.S. policies intended to “civilize the Indian” and re-educate native groups forbade any expression of native culture and language. Native students from around the country were forced into 150 government-run boarding schools during the early-mid 20th century. There, they were compelled to adopt Anglo Saxon “Christian” names and to stop speaking their tribal languages.  As a result of these policies, many Indigenous tribes now have few native speakers left. Oklahoma’s Kiowa and Comanche tribes have as few as 100 fluent speakers remaining.

A step forward

Indigenous Peoples’ Day organizer Sarah Adams-Cornell said, “We can celebrate the survivors, the resiliency of Native people and our contributions to this land and our thriving culture today.” Adams-Cornell says native communities are uniting across the state of Oklahoma and throughout the nation “like never before.”

The misrepresentation of diverse histories and tribal identities is also a continuation of a cultural hegemony aimed at quashing indigenous traditions, languages, and systems of thought. Adams-Cornell said, “the legacy of Columbus is not worthy of a holiday but rather condemnation. His legacy includes murder, enslavement, sex trafficking and torture of Indigenous people.”

When the first European conquerors suppressed the beliefs of indigenous people, they attempted to replace those systems of thought with forms of Christianity. Holidays like Columbus Day and 89er Day, which celebrate the European conquerors and colonists who committed atrocities and displaced indigenous people, are a continuation of that violent history of cultural suppression.  Such misrepresentations and skewed narratives persist today in the form of federal holidays, false media representations, and misappropriations of native traditions and identity for popular entertainment.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is gaining momentum in city and tribal governments around the state.  In late September, the City of Anadarko adopted an Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution. “It's time that we tell the truth about this history,” Adams-Cornell said. “We have the opportunity and obligation to give our community something better, something true, something we can all be proud of.”

On Oct. 7, Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation signed a proclamation stating: “The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has a responsibility to highlight its glorious history, rich culture and to promote who we are as Chahta people.” Oklahoma City University announced it, too, would be issuing a proclamation supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day on their campus. Albuquerque, New Mexico has also made a similar declaration on Oct. 7.

On Oct. 13, council members in Oklahoma City will hear the Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution for a third and final time this year. The resolution failed by a 4-4 vote at a previous hearing. It remains to be seen whether other Oklahoma cities like Stillwater, Norman, and Tulsa will hold their own public hearings on Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolutions. Pressure is mounting.

Organizers like Cornell-Adams and McCray emphasize that the many Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolutions are exciting for many native organizers. Still, this is only a starting point. Having honest dialogue about the past is only a first step towards correcting past injustices. For organizers like McCray, clearing the way for intentional spaces focused on restoration and healing is one of many desired outcomes. “Native students from all corners of the university are mobilizing now and I think that we can all agree Indigenous Peoples’ Day – both the resolution and the upcoming celebration – signify a starting point for more intentional and direct actions from the native community.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations at OU will begin the morning of Monday, Oct. 12. A list of the scheduled events can be found here.

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Casey Holcomb

Casey Holcomb is a writer, independent journalist, and policy advocate based in Norman, Oklahoma...

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