As students walked through campus on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 11, they were likely to hear chants of, “our existence is persistence,” coupled with, “hey hey, ho ho, Columbus Day has got to go.”
These chants came from MSU’s North American Indigenous Student Organization, or NAISO, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day with a gathering, march and speaking event held by The Rock on Farm Lane.
The Rock was painted today with the text “every child matters” above several black silhouettes on an orange background, surrounded by footprints. All of these symbols come together to represent a mourning for Native American children lost in U.S. and Canadian boarding schools, said public relations representative for NAISO and citizen of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Roxy Sprowl.
NAISO’s event celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day was preceded by a proclamation by President Joe Biden marking today as such, the first official acknowledgement of the holiday from a sitting president. Biden also signed a proclamation marking today Columbus Day, a tradition which has carried on uninterrupted since the early 1970s.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day, observed on the second Monday of each October, is a holiday long proposed by activists as a substitute for Columbus Day, a tradition that some critics say ignores the historical and modern persecution of Indigenous peoples.
“I think it’s crazy that it’s still being discussed this year,” Esme Bailey, secretary of NAISO and a direct descendent of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe from Mount Pleasant, said.
Bailey continued that she prefers the Indigenous Peoples’ Day observance, “I do believe it’s a good thing because we’re starting to focus on the beauty of humanity more than the horridness of the past.” she said.
Sprowl said that the holiday is about reclaiming indigeneity and strength as Indigeonous people.
“We’ve always been historically resilient and historically strong, but this is a day where we can actually celebrate that resilience — and where other people should be celebrating it too, since we’re so left out of the K-12 school system,” she said.
Neely Bardwell, cultural programmer for NAISO and citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, also discussed Indigenous Peoples’ Day in relation to the nation’s education system.
“I think right now, our history isn’t taught in K-12 and sometimes not even in higher education,” Bardwell said. “So, that would be a first step (toward representation) — actually having inclusive history, and including true history at that."
“Teaching true history is very important because a lot of people still think that we don’t exist, or false narratives about our people.”
After a brief march from Beaumont Tower to The Rock, the 50-or-so students and Indigenous community members were led in prayer by Alphonse Pitawanakwat, a member of the Anishinaabe community.
The prayer was followed by remarks from Hunter Genia, Ojibwe/Odawa, a social worker who has spent over 30 years working with Anishinaabe communities.
Genia discussed his experiences with Michigan institutions, both academic and governmental, saying that many adults he speaks to aren’t able to name even one of Michigan’s 12 recognized tribes.
“One of the things that I know to be true is that if I was to go and take a look through our local public schools K-12 curricula in regards to history here in America, most everything that we are here for today is left out of the history book,” Genia said.
Genia also offered to have a meeting with MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. about issues including the university’s teaching of Native American history and better honoring the state’s Indian Tuition Waiver.
He pointed out that the waiver, which guarantees free tuition to members of federally recognized tribes with at least 25% Native American blood, leaves out much of Michigan’s native communities that aren’t a part of a federally recognized tribe.
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A consistent focus throughout the event were recent reports of Native American boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada that historically abused Native American children physically and emotionally, often to the point of death. One expert told Reuters in June that he believes there may be as many as 40,000 unmarked graves of Native American children in the U.S. alone.
Genia, while praising some aspects of the Biden administration, said that the president seems to have a double standard when officially recognizing historical Native American persecution.
“Joe Biden has recognized the Armenian Genocide, yet the United States has not recognized or acknowledged the genocide that has happened here in America.”
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