Indigenous Peoples’ Day: A celebration and a commitment to culture, natural resources

Cedar Attanasio/AP Photo Demonstrators celebrate on the base of a stone obelisk torn down Monday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In July, activists called for the monument to be removed during peaceful protests.

Oct. 12 shared a split bill of holidays, being both Columbus Day, and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Columbus Day, celebrating the famous 1492 oceanic trip of sailor Christopher Columbus finding the East Indies instead of India in a hunt for spices, has been a long-held American tradition. What exactly is this newer holiday arrival, Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Michigan Tech University put on a forum regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day and social justice for Native American populations. The forum was moderated by Emily Shaw, a Ph.D. candidate in industrial engineering, and the board featured five Native American educators, activists, and environmentalists.

One important aspect of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (IPD) is connecting to the earth, which sustains all people on it. IPD celebrations call for commitments to environmentalism and social justice.

Cecilia Lapointe of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Bad River Band of Anishanaabe said, “I don’t like the word ‘activism’ because it suggests to act, only sometimes. Community work needs to be constant and ongoing, in the way we live.”

Also important to IPD is celebrating and acknowledging Native American history and culture. Dr. Martin Reinhart, a professor and the chair of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University, said, “Teaching is like therapy to me because I get to think about it all day long. I teach education from an Indian perspective. I like to focus a lot on the reading of treaty rights and food.”

Dr. Reinhart shared the importance of community involvement and strong environmentalism. Speaking about his presence at the Standing Rock protests, he said, “A lot of people don’t like violence, but sometimes we have to stand between those who are praying and those who are doing the shooting.”

Environmentalism and respecting the earth goes beyond recycling, and can involve taking beatings and tear gas when in front of “the black snake,” dangerous oil pipelines like the one stopped at Standing Rock, trying to go through sacred tribal lands.

The forum covered priority water issues, which is heavily on the minds of the Anishinaabe tribe. High on the list is the Line 5 oil pipeline. Dr. Reinhart addressed the idea that Line 5 needs to happen because Line 5 would provide jobs and energy, and proponents for the line put that above all else.

“Enbridge takes lives,” Dr. Reinhart said. “It extracts oil, and seeps along the way, potentially into the great lakes.” Reinhart explained that Enbridge is causing a competition between people’s hearts, the environment, and their wallets. “It shouldn’t be about money. We have to responsible, we have to stand up and protect.”

Jessica Koski, a member of the KBIC with a Masters Degree in Environmental management, agreed with Dr. Reinhart. “The potential destruction from Line 5 isn’t worth it.”

Kathleen Smith, a member of the KBIC and a habitat specialist, shared views along those lines. “We try to heal the land the best that we can,” she said. “We have learned to live along with it,” Koski said of the environmental scars from mining. “Now we’re in that space that we can work together and fix it. We need to be here for the land in a good way.”

Apart from environmental protections, IPD is about Native American advancement and social justice. Cecelia LaPointe made it clear that social justice for the Native American “needs to be Native-led. The work needs to be for, and from our communities. It is critical that this work remains by and for our peoples. In order for true sovereignty, it’s critical we do it.”

Lapointe included water protections, treaty rights, racism, marginal issues, and harm reductions under the social justice issues faced by Native Americans.

Celebrations of Native American history, culture, and seeing how far indigenous peoples have come is hallmark to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Preserving traditional languages and cultural aspects is important, too.

Dr. Margaret Noodin, a professor at the University of Milwaukee, said “speaking our language gifts us another way of thinking. It gives us different concepts we don’t have in English. If we lose our language, we lose these lessons.”

“Some of us no longer have our culture and our traditions,” said Smith. “There’s a disconnect. Our language, our songs, brings us back.”


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