Indigenous People’s Day: Honoring My People And Rejecting “Heroic” Genocide

Feature image via Joe Brusky/Flickr/CC

I can still clearly remember the mnemonic device I was taught in my Oklahoma elementary school to learn the “facts” about christopher columbus: In 1492, columbus sailed the ocean blue. The version of the song has changed, and has a bit more accuracy since my schoolyard days, but it still ignores the reality of who columbus was: a genocidal, mass raping, torturing, white man who is responsible for beginning the transatlantic slave trade.

Celebrating columbus, and his blood stained legacy, is a slap in the face to all Indigenous People, as well as Black People, who are still suffering from colonialism, and all of its repercussions, due to him. By continuing to force feed a false narrative of a heroic explorer who risked life and limb to prove the world wasn’t flat, the U.S. is denying that the birth of the “Americas” runs red with the blood of my people. I refuse to recognize columbus day as a holiday. I boycott all businesses that hold columbus day sales. I don’t think his name deserves capitalization. I advocate for the government to no longer recognize this holiday and to instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. Taking part in these actions are small, but important steps, towards recognizing that white people and other settlers have been able to immigrate to the U.S. as a result of all that Indigenous People have had, and continue to have, taken from us so white people can prosper.


Indigenous Peoples Day: A History & Reflection

Indigenous Peoples Day was first introduced as International Solidarity Day with American Indians at the 1977 United Nations International NGO Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas conference. This was a radical act at the time, in fact, still is.

Berkeley, CA became the first city to officially make the switch from columbus day to Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992. Since then many cities have followed suit: Seattle, Minneapolis, Cambridge, Denver, Boulder, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Lawrence, KS, Portland, OR, Anadarko, OK, and Bexar County in Texas, with more cities considering the change every year and several states either not recognizing columbus day or celebrating their own version of Indigenous Peoples Day.

Not every city has moved in the right direction, though. The Cincinnati City Council rejected Indigenous Peoples Day. Five of their City Council Members were too cowardly to publicly own their racism and colonialism; they abstained from voting. The irony that Ohio is home to a city named after columbus, and the extremely racist Cleveland Indians, is not lost on me.

For the second year in a row Oklahoma City kept columbus day with a vote of 6-3 in favor of it. Some of the city councilors claimed they were worried that if they changed to Indigenous Peoples Day it would be discriminatory towards Italian-Americans.

Oklahoma has the second highest Native population in the U.S. Unlike Italian-Americans, my Cherokee ancestors did not migrate to Oklahoma of their own choosing. We were forced there-along with the Muskogee Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, over the course of a year on what is known as the The Trail of Tears. This removal and genocide was masterminded by President andrew jackson, also known as the “Indian Killer,” so the U.S. Government could further the colonization of our lands and the subsequent slavery of Africans. It’s estimated that 4,000 of my ancestors died on their way to what was then known as “Indian Territory.” There’s no way of knowing how many of our women were raped by the U.S. military during this forced removal. We were told that this land would be ours, but as is the continued way of the U.S. government, they took this from us too. Not even 100 years later they opened up our new land for white settlers to claim in what’s known as the Oklahoma Land Run.

Just as I can clearly remember the song about columbus, I can remember participating in “land run day” at my elementary school. I wore a red cotton dress that had small yellow flowers with a matching bonnet that my grandma made so that I could look like one of the white colonizers. We had races to see who could steal the land first. Several years later in my 9th grade Oklahoma history class, our book only had half a page on the Trail of Tears and numerous pages over the land run. That’s what institutional discrimination truly is, not the changing of a federal holiday that honors the man that began my people’s torture and bloodshed.


Liberal Racist Excuses for the Celebration of Genocide & Why They Don’t Fly

Armed with a college degree, four years in Los Angeles, and the knowledge of what U.S. history really looked like, I moved to the northeast for work and graduate school. I was blown away by how much these people loved their pilgrims, columbus day, and thanksgiving. Driving down the Mass Pike for the first time, I was dumbfounded to see highway signs with pilgrim hats on them. New Englanders were glorifying the very people that slaughtered Native People even after they saved their land-stealing lives. I grew up being told this was the land of those “damn liberal Yankees.” Little did I know that these liberal Yankees really loved their Native genocide.

A roommate was the first person to tell me columbus day was about celebrating Italian-American heritage. He was raised in a New England Democratic household and like so many of his brethren, he was a self-righteous bigot. We were discussing our upcoming work weeks when I expressed my discontent with the columbus day holiday. He looked me straight in the face and told me that I was “overreacting” and that the holiday was about celebrating his Italian heritage. I was utterly stupefied. During this conversation he also called me a “squaw.” I wish that I could say this was my only experience with this level of abuse in the northeast, but it’s only one example.

While living in New York City I was amazed to learn that the city not only had a columbus Day parade, but that it’s “the world’s largest celebration of Italian-American heritage.NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly boasted about this pathetic display of racism and colonialism and how it celebrates “the achievements of those who came before us – immigrants who faced untold hardships throughout history, yet persevered to build the world we inhabit today… As the grandchild of four Italian immigrants, I am extremely proud of my heritage and the values of family, hard work, and the promise of American opportunity that my grandparents passed along… May we follow their example and leave a New York State that is even better for our children.”

When I read this my blood boils at his white and settler privilege. I wonder whose children he really cares about? It clearly isn’t the Indigenous children of NY. This argument ignores all that Native People have had taken from us so he and other immigrants can prosper. He has this “right” because of my ancestors’ loss and that of every Indigenous and Black person who was harmed because of columbus. Coincidentally, until very recently, the NY village of Whitesboro (a rather fitting name) had a town seal of a white man strangling an Oneida Man. It literally took national outrage to get the town to change the seal.

My mom is white — primarily German, Swedish, and Dutch. I recognize her white ancestry every bit as much as I do my Cherokee culture.  I would never deny my family members and our history. Good or bad, evil or angelic, it’s part of who I am. I understand that my European relatives underwent hardships coming here, but I would never dream of honoring them with the celebration of hitler. Both hitler and columbus are responsible for genocide. The striking differences, though, are that hitler based the concentration camps off the U.S. created reservation system and that we’re taught in our U.S. history classes that hitler was evil and columbus was the epitome of masculinity: a heroic conqueror.


The End Result

Over the years I’ve been called pocahont*s, redsk*n, inj*n, squ*w, prairie n*gger, and a great deal more. As I’m writing this I’m sitting in my chosen home of the district of “colombia,” the home of the redsk*ns. I’ve been fetishized because of my race and had my racial identity erased as if we Native People no longer exist. I’ve had my health, job, and safety put at risk because of others’ racism and colonialism. Much of this was at the hands of so called liberals, feminists, radicals, and Democrats.

Continuing the legacy of columbus is to continue a false narrative of ameriKKKan history and to erase all of the blood shed that has been orchestrated by white society in order to benefit them. It ignores what we continue to face, including the militarized violence we’re enduring at this very minute at the hands of the state at Standing Rock and the U.S. government’s continual blatant disregard for treaties via the U.S. Court of Appeals Sunday ruling allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline construction to continue on sacred sites.

For some, columbus day may just be another day, but it is symbolic of something much larger. It’s a symbol of the discrimination and violence I still experience as a Native Woman, and that my community experiences. Cuomo and all white people are allowed to feel pride in their heritage, but not at the expense of the oppressed and marginalized of ameriKKKan society. I truly pity my ex-roommate, Governor Cuomo, and all people who aren’t evolved enough to celebrate their heritage beyond that of a mass-raping, slave-trading, sex-trafficking murderer with a bad sense of direction.


I normally spell derogatory words used towards Native Women and People with an asterisk in them in order to convey that these are unacceptable to use. In the instance of “squaw” I made an exception because I realize that some readers, in particular those raised and living outside the U.S., may not recognize the word without it spelled fully at least once.

A version of this piece also appears at The Establishment.


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Profile gravatar of Jen Deerinwater

Jen Deerinwater is a classically trained vocalist vagabond with a love for books, well made martinis, and antique maps. Jen has several degrees from over priced universities and the student loan debt to prove it. She is an out and proud Bisexual, hard Femme, Disabled, and is mixed race Tsalagi-a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. After several years spent in the trenches of American politics you can now find her stirring the pot of radical discourse online. Follow her musings and soap box rants at JenDeerinwater and jendeerinwater on Instagram.

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7 Comments

  1. I remember learning about the Trail of Tears in elementary school, but I’m not sure how I started, because my school definitely taught the traditional narrative about Columbus and colonization. Probably it was because I read a lot, including children’s historical fiction, and my parents must have deliberately given me access to diverse books. I researched the Trail of Tears and did my social studies project on it in fifth grade, and learning the history of what really happened so early meant that I never bought into what was being taught about the explorers and the founding fathers in school.
    I did my fourth grade social studies project on the underground railroad and Harriet Tubman, so I was getting all the real history.

  2. I have Italian ancestry and I don’t want colonization to have a part in any celebration of my heritage. It’s disgusting that Columbus Day is still a federal holiday. If Italian-Americans want a day to recognize and share our culture, we should create an entirely new one.

  3. Thank you for writing this. My mother is a supporter of Native sovereignty and rights, and I’ve known about Native genocide since I was a toddler because she taught my sisters and me. It’s been highly discordant to be raised at home with factual history and to know that most people only learn the colonialist propaganda that is taught as part of official state curricula. I also grew up neopagan and have since moved into the polytheist community, and I have seen an astonishing amount of cultural appropriation and religious ignorance.

    I agree that Columbus Day shouldn’t be a holiday, and I was really happy when I learned that my workplace doesn’t celebrate it because we’re a private university.

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