Fast approaching is one of America’s most complicated and controversial federal holidays: Columbus Day. Commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, the modern world essentially begins here. However, we as a culture tend to overlook the bloodshed that shaped the colonial exchange and ultimately led to the founding of the United States. In recent years, Native American communities across the continent and their allies have questioned whether we should even give Columbus the honor of a holiday at all, or how we should tell the story of his arrival and its consequences.
First, a quick recap of how the celebrations and counter-celebrations came to be. The decision to give Christopher Columbus his own holiday ties in directly with the history of anti-immigrant movements in the late 1800s. Italian-Americans celebrated this well-known Italian historical figure to demonstrate that they too had a place in the American melting pot. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially made Columbus Day a federal holiday. However, the social dynamics of this country have changed considerably since then; Italian-Americans have largely been folded into the broader concept of whiteness, as other immigrants from Latin America and Asian countries bear the brunt of nativism and “perpetual foreigner” status. And even in Columbus’s own era, his violent treatment of Indigenous peoples set the tone for centuries of abuses against Native Americans, an ugly truth that coexists with the patriotic “nation of immigrants” veneer.
Native American communities across the continent have long held quite different perspectives on the “discoverer”, which has slowly but steadily built up mainstream attention. Activists have disrupted parades and literally put Columbus on trial to force the country to reckon with what it is determined to overlook. After decades of work, activist groups persuaded Berkeley, California to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in 1992. In the 29 years since, several states and cities across the United States have followed. With today’s vibrant, youth-led racial justice movements across the country, more will likely do the same in the coming years.
In my early years, I was taught that Columbus was a courageous man who discovered the American continent and provided the world I knew with its origin story. Years later, when I was around the same age as the girls+ that we at MEDIAGIRLS serve, I began to think more critically about what Columbus’s arrival meant for the people who already lived in this hemisphere for millennia, and who still live here today. With last summer’s reckoning about America’s racist history, the lionization of Christopher Columbus got a long-overdue reconsideration. Even if no one is actively cheering for slavery, disease, and genocide, the non-engagement with the truth ultimately supports the status quo.
One of the beauties of the Internet is that you can connect and learn from basically anyone, including those who’ve historically been shut out of the narrative. For this Indigenous People’s Day, MEDIAGIRLS is proud to introduce some Indigenous influencers, artists, and activists to offer their under-represented but absolutely vital perspectives.
Daunette Moniz-Reyome is an Omaha activist, model, and speaker. She’s brought attention to cultural appropriation in the beauty and makeup spheres in this iconic Teen Vogue piece, spoken at the UN International Day of the Girl, and made a short documentary for PBS. Her areas of interest include cultural appropriation, community violence, and advocacy on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women. This woman embodies perseverance, courage, and pride, and is a worthy role model for girls+ all over.
Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs
You may recognize this queer Mohawk history-maker already from her show-stopping moment at the Emmys last month, or better yet, from the show that she, her co-stars, and co-creator Stephen Harjo were there to promote, the excellent dramedy Reservation Dogs. Her colorful acting career has included a recurring role on American Gods and several star turns in independent movies like Rhymes for Young Ghouls and The Sun at Midnight. In addition to being a talented and versatile actress, she’s also a powerful writer, as she deftly demonstrates in this recent piece for Time. It is not an easily digestible topic (content warning for an extensive discussion of suicide), but it is an important one and she does not pull her punches. But through it all, there’s a keen sense of hope and determination that things can get better if you dare to look for it.
Patrick Willie of the Navajo Nation is a YouTube and TikTok creator. On YouTube, he anchors the “Natives React” series of videos, which accrue Indigenous creativity from across the internet, which he and a group of friends discuss in sometimes humorous, sometimes heartfelt ways. On TikTok, he continues to entertain with his incredible hoop-dancing skills. His topics of interest range from hard-hitting issues like suicide prevention and the risk that Covid-19 poses to Indigenous communities to roasts of the Buffalo Horns Riot Guy. In every situation, Patrick lives by his mission statement to create and inspire, making him a worthy addition to any social media feed.
Also operating primarily from the TikTok sphere, Tia Wood is a Cree and Salish creator who uses her platform to sing, educate about history, and entertain with Indigenized riffs on TikTok trends. With over 2 million TikTok followers, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard of her already, and her influence is only growing. This woman is one of the most unique, impactful creators I’ve come across in my time on TikTok, and I cannot recommend her strongly enough.
Finally, Calina Lawrence is an influencer and musician from the Suquamish Nation, whose eclectic influences include spoken word poetry, bluegrass, soul, hip-hop, and traditional Lushootseed songs. All of these come together in her stunning album Epicenter, which blends music with a call to action against racial, gender, and environmental injustice. These range from fighting with the people of Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, gentrification, the prison-industrial system, and the education system’s failures in how it represents Native history.
One of the most insidious things about the Columbus fantasy (and indeed, wider American mythology) is how it frames the Native American nations of this continent as distant and dead to make room for the shining city on the hill that just so happens to be mostly populated by white people. These five people, along with millions of others across two continents, are living proof that the First Nations are still here, and that they continue to make their mark on the world.
So this Indigenous People’s Day, instead of humming that same mnemonic about the ocean blue in ‘92, give a like, watch, or listen to these culture-shapers or any other who catches your attention. Seeking out new stories is at the heart of critical media theory; we better ourselves by finding spaces by listening to and learning from people from all walks of life.
Katherine Lynch is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass. She studies Communications and Media with a minor in Marketing. She loves to read, write, and learn about the world, passions she is eager to share with the MEDIAGIRLS community.