‘Whose land is this?’ Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Cousins and BYU students Leah Daryl Bedah and Erika Yellowhair stand side by side in front of the Massasoit Native American Chief statue on BYU campus on Oct. 11, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. (Kristine Kim)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Oct. 11 is a day of celebration of the history and contributions Indigenous people have made in the U.S.

President Joe Biden released a proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year: “For generations, federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous people’s resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

“We must never forget the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country.”

For some BYU students who are Native American, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has meaning and is of deep importance. Navajo BYU lingustics student Leah Waldrop said growing up, she never felt seen or acknowledged as a native woman. Having more recognition means she can help others around her learn about and celebrate her culture, she said.

Erika Yellowhair, Diné elementary education student and president of the Tribe of Many Feathers Club, said Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day of celebration. “Today is a day where we really remember the struggles and trials [my ancestors] went through in order for me to be where I am today.”

Yellowhair said part of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day is talking about and sharing stories of why she, her friends and her Native American brothers and sisters still stand and are alive today.

Utah and Columbus Day

According to Pew Research Center, 20 states, plus American Samoa and Puerto Rico, still call the second Monday in October Columbus Day, considering it a public holiday. Utah is one of them. Nov. 12 will be recognized as Indigenous People’s Day in the State.

Navajo-Mexican neuroscience student Naabaahii Tsosie said Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to remember his ancestors, heritage and culture. When discussing Utah’s decision to still celebrate Oct. 11 as Columbus Day, Tsosie said “It’s sad because a lot of people try and defend the choices and actions of their ancestors, even if they know they’re wrong.”

Yellowhair also said celebrating Columbus day is actually celebrating murder, genocide and Indigenous plight. She said doing this is an act of disregarding and ignoring the emotions, feelings and views of Native Americans.

She said Christopher Columbus was just one of the many people who voyaged to the Americas, yet, he has been put above all other discoverers and people for centuries. Columbus, she said, brought murder, disease and genocide, by taking the lives of Indigenous people.

Yurok BYU teacher education professor Roni Jo Draper said several Church members have instilled a white supremacist narrative of Christopher Columbus within the Church. Draper, in her roundtable article for Dialogue Journal titled “I am Giving Columbus No More of My Time,” said the passage found in 1 Nephi 13:12 could be opened up to other interpretations — that other possible readings and interpretations of the scripture could change the narrative of that passage.

1 Nephi 13:12 reads, “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and awrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.”

Draper said many members of the Church believe Christopher Columbus was the man mentioned in the verse and was meant to find the Americas.

However, everyone has different interpretations of the scriptures and will confirm them based on what they know and are used to, Draper told The Daily Universe. White people, she said, will confirm things they enjoy about themselves in their white history that confirm that white history. As a native person, Draper said her interpretations are quite different and come from a non-white, native perspective.

Draper said that with room for different interpretations, there is no reason everyone has to accept Columbus as the referent in the verse, especially when everyone “is aware of his crimes.”

“Putting Columbus on this pedestal only perpetuates the idea that native peoples are in need of rescue, that there is no way natives could be possibly the ones to save us, to have kept this land and prepared it for the Gospel,” Draper said.

Educating yourself

Draper said Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to reclaim and let the world know Indigenous and native peoples aren’t just people who lived and existed in the past, but are people who are here now.

“We’re contributing now and we’re reclaiming that we’re not going to be erased or silenced,” she said.

Tsosie also highlighted the importance of people educating themselves to get rid of unintentional racism and racial insensitivity.

As a minority student, especially in the neuroscience major, Tsosie said there are not a lot of other Native American students. “A lot of times, I’m the victim of unintentional racism or insensitivity. If people were to take at least this day to become a little more educated about Native American culture and history, it would get rid of the unintentional racism or insensitivity,” Tsosie said.

He said people can become educated on Native American issues and can really make a difference; all it requires is spending a little bit of time learning about Native Americans and their history.

Draper said she hopes anyone who hears references about Indigenous people, wherever they are, will pause and ask themselves the question “whose land is this?” and “who were the first peoples to be on this land?” These are important questions and will help individuals to recognize who the first stewards are, she said.

“If we learned about more of whose land we’re on and whose land we’re occupying, that would go a long way for us to educate ourselves and understand what the situations are like in the U.S., for Indigenous people,” Draper said.

Native Land Digital is an online website that allows anyone to see what Native American territory their land or address is on.

Draper said looking up prominent Indigenous people who have made a difference in the U.S. or in local areas are important. “Find out who these people are and learn about them. Recognize that they are important.”

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