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Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day

Many communities honored the nation’s first residents Monday

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Irv Porter, at left, led participants in the 2019 Presbyterians for Earth Care Conference in the Blanket Exercise on Aug. 8, 2019 at the Stony Point Center in Stony Point, New York. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — Traditionally, on the second Monday of October the United States celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492.

However, on Monday many communities across the nation celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples Day is part of a growing movement to end the celebration of the Italian explorer and rather honor and recognize Indigenous people, the original occupants of the Americas.

Many scholars believe it was Viking Leif Erickson who first came to what would be become known as the New World from overseas. They believe Columbus wasn’t the first European to discover what we know as the Americas and that he first landed on the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas.  And, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Columbus never set foot in North America, but in present day Venezuela on his fourth journey.

While Columbus didn’t technically discover America, he was instrumental in the colonization of North America and its lasting effects on this nation.

In an effort to help Presbyterians realize the atrocities enacted upon Indigenous people, the Presbyterian Mission Agency through the Native American Intercultural Congregational Support ministry has conducted the Blanket Exercise so that individuals can better visualize the impact of Columbus and the Church’s actions against Indigenous people.

The exercise explores the tenets of The Doctrine of Discovery, the 1493 papal edict promoting the appropriation of land and the subjection of inhabitants of that land during the era of European exploration.

Part physical experience and part history lesson, the Blanket Exercise raises awareness of the systemic and systematic process Europeans, the U.S. Government and the Church used to steal land, separate families, forcibly take children from parents to boarding schools and murder hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

During the exercise individuals are invited to stand on the blanket of their choosing among about 20 or so covering the floor. Four individuals read from a script which outlines the cruel effects the Doctrine of Discovery had on Native Americans. An assistant periodically rolls up corners and edges of the blankets until there was scant room for participants to stand.

As the blanket exercise plays out, crowd members — playing the part of the up to 30 million Native Americans present in what Europeans called the New World when Christopher Columbus landed on Caribbean islands more than five centuries ago — took a seat as disease, warfare, broken treaties, forced migration and mandatory boarding schools took their toll. In the end, very few people remain standing on what’s left of the blankets.

In one presentation of the blanket exercise Irv Porter, associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support, told participants, “If you’ve never heard this before, you’re not alone. This is the kind of history nobody cares about.” The mission, he said, is to “wake us up that this happened. We as a denomination are trying to blunt this racism.”

It is not known exactly how many communities celebrated Monday as Indigenous Peoples Day,  but at least 10 states, many college campuses, and more than 100 cities no longer celebrate Columbus Day but celebrate some version of Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October.

For many Native Americans, Columbus Day is viewed as hurtful and misleading. It’s reminiscent of centuries of violent history and colonial oppression at the hands of European explorers and the Church. For many the hurt and ramifications of those actions and wounds still run deep today.

However, as Porter said during a blanket exercise, quoting Rio Ramirez, a Tohono O’odham educator in Tucson: “No one here today made these things happen. But we are the ones who are living now, and we need to understand that we are all in this together.”

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