Why Indigenous Peoples Day Matters

For centuries, American schoolchildren have learned about Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the New World. However, this education has often been incomplete, with limited study dedicated to the treatment of and impacts on the indigenous populations by the colonizing Europeans. Frequently, myths about Europeans bringing a civilizing influence upon the “savage” indigenous populations were shared, learned, and taught to future generations, and these myths slowly engrained themselves in what became our collective interpretation of our national history. The deaths of millions of Native Americans after 1492 to war, famine, forced deportation, and disease were often papered over and ignored, in favor of the celebration of a man who “discovered” a continent where millions of native inhabitants already lived.

Since 1970, the United States has recognized the second Monday in October as “Columbus Day.” Beginning no later than 2019, that will change in the County of Los Angeles.

Today, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion I authored, along with my co-author Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, that will remove Columbus Day as an official County holiday and replace it with “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Since 1970, instead of Columbus Day, Native Americans have celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day, a day of remembrance of our ancestors, a means of dispelling the myth that Columbus discovered America, and to celebrate the survival, resilience, and deep contributions to all people who now live on this continent.

Recognizing the contributions, history, and sacrifices made by the original inhabitants of Los Angeles and this continent is long overdue. As declared by the presidential proclamation of 2015, Native Americans and their traditions inspire the ideals of self-governance and determination that are the framework of our Nation. Native Americans have provided significant contributions to our American cultural tapestry, including agriculture, medicine, self-governance, music, language, and art. Indeed, the Native American community includes globally-recognized inventors, scholars, and spiritual leaders. This one act of restorative justice is important to many communities throughout the United States and Los Angeles, especially Native Americans, who have some of the highest percentages of depression, incarceration, infant mortality, diabetes, and a lower life expectancy of any demographic.

My action at the Board is about publicly recognizing our true and complete history: that America’s ancestors, for centuries, oppressed certain minority groups. This is not about erasing history; I believe the full history and impact of Christopher Columbus should be taught to current and future generations. I also believe that the positive contributions of Italian-Americans to our culture should be celebrated and recognized: my motion also designates October 12th of each year as Italian American Heritage Day in the County of Los Angeles. Italian American Heritage Day provides an opportunity for County residents to recognize the contributions of Italian-Americans to the history and culture of Los Angeles.

While we cannot change the past, we can realize and remember the pain that millions suffered throughout our nation’s history. We can also recall the tremendous achievements of the original inhabitants of our continent. With Indigenous Peoples Day, I hope we advance this fuller understanding of our history.

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