Who first discovered America?

If you grew up being taught the traditional form of American history, your answer is probably Christopher Columbus. The common narrative is that the Italian explorer discovered America in 1492.

In reality, the land had been inhabited for years by Indigenous tribes who had migrated there. This began to drastically change when Columbus and numerous other explorers after him gradually colonized their land, killing and enslaving many natives or driving them away to “Indian Territories.”

Unfortunately, this is the tragic injustice that many of us were never taught. It is the forgotten history that “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” has revived by celebrating the historical presence of Native Americans and acknowledging their lived experiences today.

Restoring the broken fragments of Indigenous history first begins by acknowledging that this history exists.

On Oct. 11, 2021, President Joe Biden formally established that day as “Indigenous People’s Day,” becoming the first president in U.S. history to do so. For many Indigenous people, establishing a day specifically in honor of their heritage is a crucial step towards reclaiming their role in America’s history.

As expressed by Mandy Van Heuvelen, a Cheoux tribe member, Indigenous Peoples’ Day will be “a day of reflection of our history in the United States, the role Native people have played in it, the impacts that history has had on native people and communities, and also a day to gain some understanding of the diversity of Indigenous peoples.”

It is important to the Native American community because they are finally being honored after decades of invisibility and erasure. What is life like for current Native Americans and what is their perspective on the state of things?

In a video interview titled “A Conversation with Native Americans On Race,” young Indigenous people discuss what it feels like to embrace their heritage while living in America. They shared that being Indigenous is “to have an intimate and interconnected relationship to a homeland.”

Their connection to their land is a very important part of their lives. Consequently, it is very painful for Native Americans to exist within a country that has not only stripped their identity from them but also barely acknowledges that it even exists.

One young woman shares that the name of her tribe, Apache, was actually given to her people by the U.S. government because their original name was too difficult to say. Another expresses that she finds it strange that people often congratulate her for choosing to embrace her culture.

“I didn’t decide to be a part of my culture,” she says. “I live it every day.”

In addition to being marginalized and overlooked by non-natives, Indigenous people face challenges within their own communities as well. One issue is strife between those that are solely Native Americans and those of mixed heritage.

An Indigenous woman tearfully shared that her grandfather would stay in his room when fellow Native Americans visited due to his darker complexion. He didn’t want her to be looked down on for having African American ancestry.

Another person admitted to using his own heritage as justification of his superiority. This one-sided superiority is the cause for much strife and tension between many tribes.

Another major struggle within indigenous culture is alcohol and substance abuse, especially among the youth.

In Tell Me Who You Are, a collection of conversations and interviews on race, a Native American named Tyler shares that alcohol and marijuana use are major problems on the reservation where he lives. The book also notes that there are high numbers of suicides, sometimes four to 10 per day.

Tell Me Who You Are also cites research finding that “Native youth abuse heroin and prescription drugs two to three times more than the national average have the high Native American youth are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than any other ethnic group.”

These statistics are due to family violence, mass poverty, overt racism and numerous other factors.

While we, as a nation, certainly need to acknowledge the struggles Indigenous people have experienced, we should also celebrate their victories. With strength and tenacity, they have preserved their beautifully diverse cultures in spite of adversity.

There is also increased Indigenous representation in the media and entertainment. Jason Mamoa, best known as Aquaman in the film series, is Pawnee on his grandmother’s side.  To honor his ancestry, he plans to showcase the stories of indigenous people on-screen to increase awareness.

Rapper Princess Nokia is a proud Afro-indigenous woman with Taino heritage. In an interview with Teen Vogue she proclaims, “I am a Yoruba, Taino, Puerto Rican girl with really brown skin, full curly hair, and a spirit that does not quit. When I hear the drum and speech of my ancestors, I am compelled. I see it and I know it. ”

Indigenous history in America has been one of both pain and triumph. So, on October 11, let us remember and honor the lives of the Native Americans who have gone before us and seek to advocate for representation for those living today.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week to call attention to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S.

Share This