Updated October 14, 2015 at 11:49 p.m.
Over 300 students and Indigenous people from across the country gathered Monday on the Main Green to call upon the University to change the name of Fall Weekend to “Indigenous People’s Day.”
The demonstration, organized by members of the student group Native Americans at Brown, consisted of traditional songs and dances, speeches by citizens of local tribes and a march around campus, which paused in front of the home of President Christina Paxson P’19.
Throughout the event, protesters were invited to sign NAB’s petition, which formally requests that the Faculty Executive Committee change the name of Fall Weekend to “Indigenous People’s Day.” The petition notes that while the committee voted to change the name from Columbus Day to Fall Weekend in 2009, this move is the “bare minimum that Brown University can do.” The petition also calls for the weekend to be an active celebration of the resilience and resistance of Native people at Brown and at large.
Paxson reached out to NAB members to discuss changing the name of Fall Weekend, and the group plans on scheduling a meeting soon, Floripa Olguin ’16, an event organizer who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta and the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, told The Herald.
The petition stresses that though the administration is putting together a Diversity Action Plan, “antagonistic structural and social forces” still persist on campus, including problematic student views and The Herald’s publication of two racist opinions columns last week. The second column, “Columbian Exchange Day,” argued that Native Americans should be thankful for Christopher Columbus because of the goods and livestock he brought to America through trade, despite the resulting massacres and erasure of peoples and histories.
After Native students, faculty, alums and other Indigenous people introduced themselves at the demonstration, several attendees sang the Flag Song. NAB members then articulated the purpose behind the petition and the event.
“Native students are expected to be educators as well as students,” Olguin said. “Changing (the name) from Fall Weekend to ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ is the first, but one of many steps, towards actually creating an inclusive environment within the University,” she added.
“I think we have a greater chance of having the administration change the name because of the (column), just because that shows how relevant the issue is,” Sierra Edd ’18, another event organizer and a citizen of the Navajo Nation, told The Herald.
After NAB members spoke, protesters formed a circle around the Main Green and participated in a Round Dance, holding hands and stepping from side to side.
Event organizers stressed the importance of viewing the demonstration as a call for not only a name change, but also greater support and visibility for Native community members on campus.
NAB is probably “the only resource specifically for Native students on this campus,” Olguin told The Herald. “So when you place that responsibility on Native students themselves, it causes a lot of stress and hardship on top of being a student at Brown.”
The University could better support Native students by creating a Native Studies department, hiring more Native faculty and administrators and starting a program for Native languages, Phoebe Young ’17, an event organizer who is Ojibwe, told The Herald.
Institutionalizing recruitment of Native students — particularly those from the Wampanoag and Narragansett nations — should be a priority, given that the University currently sits on land that was previously occupied by those nations, Olguin told The Herald. Some peer institutions undertake more formal recruitment of students from tribal nations whose land their campuses are built upon, she said, citing Harvard and its relationship with the Wampanoag nation as an example.
“One of the things that comes with being at such an elite institution that’s been around for so long is that there’s not been any sort of collective, University-level thought about what it means to be on Native land — what it means to have the presence of Native peoples in a local sense so completely erased from Brown’s history,” Young said.
Students should “really interrogate what it means to be a part of an institution that has colonial ties, and part of a legacy that has been destructive to a group of people that (is) on this campus,” Olguin said.
The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life could also better support the religious practices of Native students, such as by helping them procure funds to return home for religious and cultural ceremonies, Olguin added.
After the Round Dance at the demonstration concluded, several Indigenous people who traveled to Providence for the event addressed the crowd.
“Terrorism was brought here — it was not indigenous to here,” said Tall Oak from the Wampanoag and Pequot nations.
Tall Oak linked the genocide of Indigenous peoples to the violence caused by the mass distribution of guns in the United States. The right to bear arms directly relates to the fact that “terrorizing Indians into submission became as American as apple pie,” he said, receiving snaps from the audience.
“Until America asks these so long overdue questions and confronts its past, the now routine news of gun violence will continue,” he said.
Tall Oak also spoke about the Great Swamp Monument along Route 2 in South Kingstown, which memorializes a colonial massacre of Narrangansett Indians. “You show me a nation’s monuments, and I’ll show you what they worship. A nation that honors hypocrites will always have hypocrisy. A nation that honors racists will always have racism. A nation that honors the greedy will have greed,” he said.
“I’m tired, and there’s something wrong with the fact that I can stand before you and say that I’m tired,” said Jonathan Perry of the Aquinnah community of the Wampanoag nation.
Approximately 6,000 Wampanoag people live in the United States, and over 3 million Mayflower descendants live across the world, Perry said. “There is something seriously wrong with those statistics. So, where are all our people?” he asked.
The celebration of Columbus Day is “a disgrace. It’s a disrespect, and it’s a national wrong. And it ends here. Happy Indigenous People’s Day,” Perry said to rousing applause.
Hartman Deetz, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe who came to campus from California, emphasized that Columbus is not celebrated because he discovered the Americas, noting that Leif Erickson came to America in 1100 and the Chinese mapped out the coast in the 1420s. The reason Columbus is celebrated is because “he started a machine of empire. He claimed land in the name of Spain. He claimed souls and lives, and he started the transatlantic slave trade,” Deetz said.
Deetz also prompted the protesters to reflect on the value Indigenous people bring to the world, rather than the value that Columbus brought to the Americas. “Indigenous People’s Day is not just about not celebrating a murderer and a tyrant. It’s also about celebrating so much of the things that we have had to offer, the positive contributions, the things that we have contributed to this world to make it a better place,” Deetz said to loud applause.
At the conclusion of the speeches, protesters grabbed signs and marched around campus while chanting slogans such as “exchange Columbus” and “change the name.” The protesters paused their march in front of Paxson’s residence.
“We wanted to make a note in coming here, that even though … the administration is not here, we will not be silent,” Olguin said.