Biden is the first US president to mark Indigenous Peoples Day

President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day on Friday, providing the most significant impetus to date in efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus towards an appreciation for Native Americans.

The day will be celebrated on October 11, as well as Columbus Day, which is established by Congress. As Native Americans have campaigned for years for local and national days in recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples, Biden’s announcement seemed to surprise many.

“It was completely unexpected. Even though we’ve been talking about it and wanting it for so long, ”said Hillary Kempenich, artist and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. In 2019, she and other members of the tribe successfully campaigned for her hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota, to replace Columbus Day with a Day of Recognition for Indigenous Peoples.

“I’m a little overwhelmed with joy,” Kempenich said. She was waiting until Friday afternoon to share the news with her eighth-grade daughter, who grew up defying teachers’ representations of Columbus.

“For generations, federal policies have systematically sought to assimilate and displace Indigenous peoples and eradicate Indigenous cultures,” Biden wrote in the proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day. “Today, we recognize the resilience and strength of Indigenous peoples and the immeasurable positive impact they have had on all aspects of American society.”

In a separate Columbus Day proclamation, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in American society, but also referred to the violence and damage that Columbus and other explorers of the day wrought on the Americas. .

On making landfall in what are now the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first in a wave of European explorers who decimated the indigenous populations of the Americas in search of gold and other wealth, including people to be enslaved.

“Today we also recognize the painful history of the wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on tribal nations and indigenous communities,” Biden wrote. “It is a measure of our greatness as a nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes from our past – that we face them honestly, we bring them to light and we do everything we can to remedy them. “

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “strongly urged” to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. When asked if Biden might seek to end the Columbus Day celebration as a federal holiday, she replied, “I have no predictions at this time.”

John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said the president’s decision to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day was a milestone.

“Big changes are happening with every small step, and we hope this administration intends to continue to take positive steps to shape a better future for all citizens,” Echohawak said.

Biden’s recognition of Native American suffering also marked a break with President Donald Trump’s ardent defense of “fearless heroes” like Columbus in his proclamation of the holiday in 2020.

“Sadly, in recent years radical activists have sought to undermine the legacy of Christopher Columbus,” Trump said at the time. “These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with discussions of his failures, his discoveries with atrocities, and his accomplishments with transgressions. “

Biden made the announcement the same day the White House disclosed plans to restore the territory of two sprawling Utah national monuments that Trump had stripped of their protections. One, Bears Ears, is found on land that Native American tribes consider sacred.

Biden’s campaign against Trump saw tribal activists rallying to secure votes for the Democrat, in an activism tribal members credited with helping Biden win over some Western states.

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Kevin E. Boling

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