Above: Lee Sprague at Monday's celebration.
More than a hundred people gathered around “The Rock” near the MSU Auditorium on Farm Lane this Monday evening (October 10, 2016) for a celebration of Indigenous People’s Day. North American Indigenous Student Association (NAISO) co-chair Cassandra Shavrnoch called it the largest crowd for the yearly event during her time at MSU.
NAISO holds this event yearly on the second Monday of October, but this year’s celebration was unique because 2016 marks the first year that the City of East Lansing has decreed that October’s second Monday shall be celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day rather than as Columbus Day. "Indigenous People" is the increasingly preferred terminology for the people who have alternatively been called Native American and American Indians. (See ELi’s report on City Council’s decision.)
Speakers at the celebration included student and alumni organizers as well as an organizer of the first Indigenous People’s Day celebration in the U.S.
Monday’s East Lansing celebration began with an invocation spoken in Anishnaabemowin, a language of the Anishnaabe people. Anishnaabe is the name of a culturally and linguistically related group of American indigenous peoples from the Great Lakes region. Later, a man identified as Aaron spoke of the individual whose name used to be praised on this day: “It is time to let go of he who crossed the ocean—Columbus—in history. No more will he be honored today as his day. It is time for us to remember the Indigenous People and Anishnaabeg and how much we have lost already, and the many Anishnaabeg who were killed, slaughtered, during and after Christopher Columbus’s time. So now it is time for us Anishnaabeg to make this day our own.”
Despite being credited with “discovering” the already-populated American continent in 1492, Christopher Columbus never set foot on the North American continent. However, he did make landfall on Hispaniola, the island where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located today.
According to his contemporaries, including Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who transcribed Columbus’s journals, the Spanish conquistador “committed irreparable crimes against the Indians” in his hunt for gold and slaves. In 1495, Columbus rounded up 1,500 people from the indigenous Taíno population and bonded them into slavery. They were either shipped to Spain, or forced to dig gold mines, work that is believed to have killed a third of the miners. All told, through murder, overwork, and suicide, Columbus’s leadership has been calculated at being responsible for the death of half the island’s native population. Nevertheless, for many centuries, his expedition was taught to schoolchildren in America as a bloodless adventure story, the mythology with which most Americans are familiar.
The movement to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day began with this more thorough understanding of history, but wasn’t put into practice until 1992, when the Berkeley City Council voted to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on October 12th of that year. Lee Sprague—a former Ogema (chief) of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, located just north of Manistee, Michigan—was part of the committee that organized that first Indigenous People’s Day celebration. He was at Monday’s celebration at The Rock.
“When Indigenous Peoples first started, in Berkeley, it was people like yourselves that worked hard on it also,” Sprague said, speaking to the crowd without a microphone in powerful voice. This celebration was hopefully “the beginning of a new relationship between all of our peoples,” he said, drawing a connection between the apartheid divestment movement that had been gaining momentum in the early 90’s, and the growing movement to divest from fossil fuels.
“At the time, the City of Berkeley and the University [of California] were actually in the process of divesting their financial investments from South Africa,” the former Little River Band leader recalled. “And at this time, we need to start considering divesting our futures with the big oil and the big gas companies, and Wells Fargo, HBC, and many other big banks that are financing the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
The recent seizure of Sioux land in North Dakota for the construction of a crude oil pipeline has fed national momentum to recognize Indigenous People’s Day, and more broadly the rights of indigenous people. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault testified on September 20th in Geneva before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, condemning the attacks on indigenous people at the hands of private security guards armed with attack dogs at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) construction site.
The protestors had gathered there on September 3rd to protest DAPL owner Energy Transfer Partners’ decision to bulldoze and destroy a sacred tribal burial site on the banks of the Missouri River. The proposed route of the pipeline carries it under that river and through other watersheds, which protestors say actively endangers the water supply for indigenous communities and beyond.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on October 5 on whether to temporarily halt construction on the DAPL. On October 9, the court decided to dissolve a temporary injunction that had been put in place. On October 10, the Departments of Justice and the Interior issued a joint statement with the Army requesting that construction on the pipeline be voluntarily paused.
The decision on whether to continue with construction currently rests with the Army Corps of Engineers. The New York Times reported yesterday that work had resumed on the pipeline.
“We need courts that are fair, and understand the issues faced by indigenous people,” Sprague told the group gathered in East Lansing on Monday. “But right now my job is to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to love water. I just can’t understand why that is hard to appreciate.”
The City of East Lansing did not send a designated representative to Monday evening’s celebration, and the City’s offices were open for business as they have lately been for Columbus Day. East Lansing’s 54-B District Court was closed Monday to honor Indigenous People’s Day.
Note: Per a reader's suggestion, after original publication this sentence was added: "'Indigenous People' is the increasingly preferred terminology for the people who have alternatively been called Native American and American Indians."