Protesters lay on the ground dressed in red at Monday’s die-in at Columbia University, New York, as part of Take Back Manhattan, which celebrates indigenous culture and history. The act was meant to symbolize the sinister significance of Columbus Day for many of the continent’s native peoples. (Courtesy of Jerry Levy)
Monday marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day—which counters the federal holiday known as Columbus Day. As evidenced by the current debate surrounding the Washington football team’s name, words are profoundly important. In the United States, Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes the self-determination of indigenous peoples in the Americas against colonization. But a recent well-intentioned effort that sought to improve Columbus Day by calling it Bartolomé de las Casas Day essentially erases the work of Natives who worked to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and instead attempts to unnecessarily create a new white hero.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first officially marked in Berkeley in 1992. The year was significant because it signified 500 years after Columbus’s arrival to island on which the Dominican Republic and Haiti now exist. Indigenous resistance to colonization and its celebration has never enjoyed the luxury of downtime—but the years leading up to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival were particularly crucial. Part of the reason is that Natives had moved to cities in unprecedented numbers in the decades leading up to the 500 mark.
The middle of the last century was one in which the US federal government became fixated on dissolving Native identity and tribal assets. The Termination Era, as it’s called, set the context for what happened in an ultimately failed attempt by white lawmakers to disappear Natives and their remaining land. In the late 1940s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, began airlifting provisions onto the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe because of particularly brutal winters. The food helped some Natives get through some seasons, but didn’t reach everyone. The BIA soon concluded that bringing in much-needed food didn’t solve the lack of resources, and the agency began opening relocation points in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver. The program provided moving expenses, as well as job training and job placement services for Navajo and Hopi citizens. Within a couple of years, an expanded program known as Urban Indian Relocation Program shipped Natives off of their nations into a dozen urban cities—including San Francisco and Oakland. What Vine Deloria described as Red Power, a pan-Indian freedom movment, was probably most visible less than two decades later, when Natives took Alcatraz Island for nearly two years, beginning in 1969.
One of the people closely associated with the movement was Mildred “Millie” Ketcheschawno. A Mvskoke, or Muskogee Creek Nation citizen, Ketcheschawno took advantage of the relocation program, and moved to Oakland. Ketcheschawno was no stranger to relocation. As a child, she had left her community at Shell Creek in Oklahoma to attend an Indian boarding school in Kansas. By the time she arrived to Oakland, other Natives were arriving as well, during the height of the Termination Era—a time during which the US federal government conveniently sought to end its treaty obligations to Natives while still taking possession of Native lands and resources.