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Native Americans at Brown: Exchange Columbus: The case for Indigenous People's Day

Native Americans at Brown’s demonstration Monday is a fight for visibility and a call for the University to oppose the acts of genocide against Native peoples. By changing the name from Fall Weekend to Indigenous People's Day, we aim to turn this holiday into a celebration of the cultures and histories of Indigenous living and dead, on campus and beyond.

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, The Herald published the column “Columbian Exchange Day,” which asked Native students on campus to celebrate the so-called benefits of Columbus’ arrival while ignoring the contemporary realities that Indigenous peoples and black people at Brown, the United States and the rest of the Americas face as a result of Columbus’ arrival. 

In the days after the publication of the column, Natives at Brown has received an outpouring of support from students and faculty members in the Brown community, and it has been a moving experience for which we are very thankful. But there are still antagonistic structural and social forces on campus that led to the release of this article that neglect the support of students of color on campus and that refused to rename Fall Weekend to Indigenous People's Day during the first petition in 2009. So we release this statement to provide history, Native student experiences at Brown and a reason for why these opinions columns have the impact that they do. We want to stress upon the student body, administration and faculty the tangible impact that racist ideologies have on Native students at Brown and beyond.

A history lesson

Bartholome De Las Casas describes Spanish soldiers under Columbus’ control as motivated by “insatiable greed, killing, terrorizing, afflicting and torturing the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty.” He recounts soldiers testing the sharpness of their blades by cutting off the legs of children who ran away from them. Columbus oversaw the selling of Native children as young as nine into sex slavery. After his arrival in the Americas, Columbus made his living through the slave trade. This legacy of sexual and physical violence towards Native peoples with genocidal intent so that Europeans would be able to bring over “Old World” comforts has been echoed throughout American history and continues to this day.

The Doctrine of Discovery written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 established the idea that Native peoples were not human as they did not practice Christianity. It stated that those who inhabited this land did not have a legitimate claim to it, rendering it conquerable for European settlers and justifiable to kill Indigenous people. This document was later used by Chief Justice John Marshall in the early 1800s to state that Native American tribes were “domestic dependent” nations and thus could not hold their own land. These court cases, known as the Marshall Trilogy, set the precedent for land claims in the United States. It led to ruthless wars, the Indian Removal Act, the continued killing and raping of Indigenous women, the eradication of beliefs on two-spirit identities (and their roles in Native societies), destabilized food systems, language loss and atrocious religious discrimination. Its impact on Native peoples is still felt today in the form of continued policies and historical trauma.

Why ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’

It’s true that the seemingly neutral title ‘Fall Weekend’ halts an active celebration of Columbus’ torture, genocide and the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade. But this is asking the bare minimum of the Brown community while quietly contributing to the erasure of Indigenous peoples. Renaming the holiday Indigenous People's Day has the power to transform the day into a celebration of the cultures and histories of the original inhabitants of the Americas.

This is not just a symbolic or political stance that we are taking. Our continuing fight for Native visibility on campus has consequences for us as students, Native communities and the greater campus community of students of color. We are living testaments to Native resistance, and we are requesting a celebration of ourselves and millions of others like us, rather than a University erasure of the genocide that we had to fight back to get here. This renaming of Fall Weekend is just one small step in longer walk towards institutionalizing real support for Native students. This protest will not be the end of this discussion. Our voices will continue to sound upon this campus.

Native student experiences

In a school where there are few formal institutional mechanisms to support Native students on campus and where our numbers as admitted students are uncertain at best, Natives at Brown is often the de facto meeting place for the few Native faculty members, undergraduates, graduate students and staff members to provide each other with an informal substitute for the support we lack. When our efforts and presence are diminished by explicit opinions that target the efforts of Natives at Brown or by bystanders who are complicit in this targeting, and by University indifference to our repeated attempts at making our needs known, the legacy of erasure and invisibility continues, and we become further isolated on this campus. We are a small population on campus, but we’re here to stay, and we’re demanding that today the University hear our voices.

The impact of ideology

What is in an opinions column today can permeate into policy tomorrow. The columns The Herald published in the name of the “free exchange of ideas” ignore the repeated ways in which racist ideologies have resulted in real-life violence. Giving poorly researched, obviously racist “opinions” a platform does not simply cause “hurt feelings,” but rather contributes to the ongoing realities of racism for Native people today. It is time to stop entertaining ideas that have proven to enact only violence on communities of color. It is time to stop celebrating the arrival of a rapist, slave trader and mass murderer.

Right now, the University has a clear decision in front of it and an opportunity to make positive change in the student body and the Brown community. It has the ability to contribute to a larger movement that seeks to reconcile past acts of violence against people of color and stop the acts of violence that continue on our communities today. At a school that seeks to “serve the community, the nation and the world by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding,” we are simply requesting that Brown celebrate the Indigenous community of its campus by preserving the knowledge, history and understanding of our perseverance. This is a demand for the celebration and recognition of collective resilience instead of brutal genocide. You tried to get rid of us before, but today, when you see us on the Main Green, we are there to tell you that you’ve failed. We’re still here, and we always will be. We’re not changing for you anymore. Indigenous People’s Day is a call for change: From now on, you will need to change for us.

Native Americans at Brown extends its gratitude to the Black Student Union, Collective of Asian American and Pacific Islander students, Latino students at Brown, the Undergraduate Council of Students and others who have stood against racism on campus.


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