As a small step toward righting historic injustices, not to mention correcting the historical record, the Ashland City Council on Tuesday unanimously declared the city will recognize Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October.
For centuries, school children have been taught Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" in 1492, a couplet that ends up having more rhyme than reason, as the supposed discovery glosses over the presence of millions of Native Americans already present in what was supposedly "undiscoved" land. What is now Oregon would not be “discovered” by European descendants until close to the 16th century.
Either way, tribal members pointed out on Tuesday, it’s a European view of the continent and its history.
And as native historian and tribal member Lupe Sims, who identifies as a White Mountain Apache and the founder of Indigenous People’s Day at Southern Oregon University, pointed out in testimony, the land did not need discovering.
“How is it possible to discover a land already inhabited by an advanced society?” questioned Sims who spoke to the council in favor of the new designation on the day formerly only recognized as Columbus Day.
“Currently we are an excluded people,” said enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, David West, who is a Professor Emeritus of Native American studies at SOU. “Columbus didn’t land here. Why do we keep teaching something that’s not a truth?”
West urged the council not to stop at this holiday designation but to continue moving forward. “Where are the native people represented in Ashland? This is an opportunity for education,” West urged the council to delve deeper in exploring the history of indigenous people. “They may have been here 12 or 14,000 years. Isn’t it time they are recognized?”
West is referring to archeological discoveries which date human habitation in Oregon as early as 13,200 years ago.
“The city of Ashland is built on tribal land. We should use the day to tell the whole story of Columbus and to acknowledge the contribution of indigenous people,” said Brook Colley, a Native Studies professor at SOU and a registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee who opened her testimony using the Cherokee language.
She urged the council forward, saying Oregon is at a tipping point in acknowledging its history. “The Portland City Council unanimously acknowledged Indigenous People’s day in 2015.”
The movement away from Columbus Day which was first a US holiday in 1937 began as early as 1977 when the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations suggested scraping Columbus Day. Berkeley, California, picked up the idea in 1992 and it continues to have momentum.
Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska and South Dakota do not celebrate Columbus Day. And now the city of Ashland has joined the list of declaring Indigenous People’s Day. It did not so much replace Columbus Day as added this indigenous recognition. This resulted in an exchange between Councilor Traci Darrow and Dan Wahpepah of Red Earth Descendants dedicated to sustaining, sharing and maintaining native traditions.
Darrow suggested, “We are not replacing Columbus Day but adding this important recognition.” To which Wahpepah quipped, “Why do we need to continue honoring someone who landed in the Caribbean? The story is not true.” Darrow responded, “Because this is part of our history too. Maybe to acknowledge that it’s not true.”
Wahpepah told the council that First Nations people have been “raising ourselves from invisibility. ... We’re at a crossroads. We’re at a point of change and we want to contribute. We’ve all been living under a sort of colonization.” He discussed the possibility of unity created through telling the whole story. “We want to contribute to our healing and we want to do this through a recognized voice.”
The resolution proposed by Councilor Dennis Slattery and seconded by Stefani Seffinger was approved unanimously by the Ashland City Council.
The resolution, in part, says, " The City Council honors the fact that the community of Ashland is built upon the traditional homelands of the Takelma, Shasta and Klamath Basin peoples. The City of Ashland is committed to protecting and advocating for justice, human rights, and the dignity of all people who live, work and visit in Ashland, and to supporting the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
Observance of Indigenous Peoples Day officially begins in Ashland this second Monday in October. Exactly how the day will be celebrated has not yet been determined, but Wahpepah described it as a start to sharing knowledge and culture. “We’ve had the boot on the neck. We’ve been saddled with invisibility. Our elders have given us knowledge and we want to pass that on to you."
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.