Students, faculty protest U. celebration of Columbus

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

About 30 students and faculty gathered on Lincoln Field yesterday bearing signs reading “No Racist Holidays at Brown,” “Remember History Responsibly” and “Say No to Columbus Day at Brown” in a “speak-out” against the University’s recognition of Columbus Day this weekend, and to raise awareness in the community about the historical inaccuracies associated with the holiday.

Many members of the Native American community feel that celebrating Columbus as the discoverer of America negates the existence of the indigenous people who were living in America before his arrival.

The speak-out, called “Say No to Columbus Day at Brown!” was part of a larger movement within the Native American community at Brown to end the observance of the holiday, push for an Indigenous Week in October to honor Native American heritage and to continue the dialogue about Native American history.

“We think the celebration is very one-sided,” said Reiko Koyama ’11, who spearheaded the effort. “We don’t want to cut off conversation. We just don’t want to honor Christopher Columbus.”

The speakers, including students, faculty and members of the local Native American community, spoke at length about Native American history and the devastation Columbus caused to the indigenous community, including genocide and the spread of disease. They also spoke about the continued sense of invisibility and ignorance surrounding the current Native American community.

Besides Harvard, Brown is the only Ivy League school to observe Columbus Day, though some schools celebrate a Fall Break.

After Jerry Wolf Duff Sellers ’09, one of the coordinators of the event, made introductions in Lakota and Osage – pronounced ­Wah-zah-zhe – he turned the program over to the speakers.

“For far too long, Native Americans have been treated as little more than a footnote,” said Dana Eldridge ’10, who began her address in Navajo. She added, “America is our country, too… and Brown is our community.”

Wanda Jean Lord, who is of Cherokee and Choctaw descent and is the leader of Honoring Our Own Power, an organization dedicated to strengthening the initiatives of indigenous communities, also asked for more respect for Native Americans.

“Invisibility not only harms Native people, it harms all people,” she said.

“You cannot logically discover a land that belongs to someone else,” Lord added. Honoring Columbus is “celebrating the value of spin over truth.”

“We have the right to tell our story,” said Paulla Dove Jennings, executive director of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum and a leader of the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island.

“You all are being cheated … in education,” Jennings said, because history was written from the European rather than the Native American perspective.

Dan Beckman ’10, who is not involved with Native Americans at Brown, attended the speak-out and agreed afterwards that Native Americans were underrepresented in the community, adding that ending the observance of Columbus Day would “finally present an accurate view of history.”

The protest also featured a performance by a local drum group from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts.

In addition to the speak-out, Native Americans at Brown is circulating a petition, which currently has about 400 signatures, asking to end the observance of Columbus Day in exchange for a different day off next year.

Marisa Quinn, vice president of public affairs and university relations, has not seen the official petition but is aware that it is going around. If a group of students presented the administration with a proposal to change the day off, she said University officials “would welcome it, bring it forward and review it.”

But many students appreciated the upcoming day off despite the unintended celebration of historical inaccuracies.

“I’m going to be happy to have Monday off … but I did sign the petition,” said Steve Larrick ’11, who briefly stopped by the petition table at the protest, though he did not stay for the speeches.

Greg Lowen ’12 agreed: “Whether we celebrate Columbus Day or not, it’s a much needed day off.”

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