UConn celebrates Indigenous People’s Day by learning from Lakota Ernie LaPointe

Ernie LaPointe the Keynote Speaker for Indigenous People’s Day, spoke to a small audience in the North Lobby of the Student Union Monday evening and said the Lakota people believe in being humble, which he defined as living without fear. (Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus)

Ernie LaPointe the Keynote Speaker for Indigenous People’s Day, spoke to a small audience in the North Lobby of the Student Union Monday evening and said the Lakota people believe in being humble, which he defined as living without fear. (Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus)

“I think we were the last group on this planet to live without fear,” Ernie LaPointe said, the great grandson of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota Sun Dancer who defeated George Custer at the Battle at Little Bighorn.

LaPointe, the Keynote Speaker for Indigenous People’s Day, spoke to a small audience in the North Lobby of the Student Union Monday evening and said the Lakota people believe in being humble, which he defined as living without fear. When Christopher Columbus came to the New World, and later when Europeans started settling North America, they were afraid of everything: the forests, the animals and the people. It was this fear that inspired the Europeans to destroy these things every time they crossed paths.

In elementary school we were taught that Columbus was the hero who discovered the New World, but since then we’ve been presented with a lot of contrary evidence. Columbus’s actions led to the utter destruction of native populations. For this reason, the idea of replacing Columbus Day celebrations with Indigenous People’s Day celebrations has gained traction. The University of Connecticut, along with a number of cities and states throughout the country has joined the movement to celebrate the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day, which accounts for several events taking place this week.

The Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center and Latin-x Student Leadership Council (LXSLC) helped raise awareness for the day by setting up a display, which will be up in the Cultural Center for the remainder of the week.

“We wanted to do something interactive to get people talking about Indigenous People’s Day,” LXSLC student coordinator and seventh semester communications major Vanessa Villar said.

Students were asked to respond to questions written on posters hung around the Program Room, and could then see the answers displayed at the end. Posters posed questions such as “How many tribes are in Connecticut?” and “What does ‘indigenous’ mean?”

“To me Columbus Day is offensive because we honor someone who didn’t really find something,” seventh semester classics and ancient Mediterranean studies major Catharine Kimberly said. Kimberly is the treasurer of the Native American Cultural Society and a student staff member of the Native American Cultural Programs.

Kimberly, along with Native American Cultural Center president Harmony Knudsen introduced LaPointe to the audience Monday evening with a traditional offering of tobacco. LaPointe responded to the offering by sharing a Sun Dance song with the listeners.

Even though he spoke on Indigenous People’s Day, LaPointe himself isn’t very sensitive to the holiday. The Lakota don’t have holidays or monuments similar to those Americans have traditionally used to honor Columbus.

“It’s just another day for me,” LaPointe said. “The story is more important for me than naming a day.”

LaPointe was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and attended public schools in Rapid City. He was orphaned by 17 and fought for the United States in the Vietnam War. He has struggled with alcoholism and was homeless for four years. In the early ‘90 she decided to take on yet another challenge, that of sharing the story of his great grandfather, and the story of his people, which he felt wasn’t being given justice. To LaPointe it mattered less that Oct. 8 was Indigenous People’s Day, and more that he was sharing stories of the Lakota with UConn students and community members.

Ultimately, LaPointe’s biggest message was about being humble, or fearless, and it was this point that resonated most with his audience. Kimberly specifically cited an anecdote LaPointe told about a mountain lion as most impactful.

LaPointe explained that if a Lakota person was out in the woods, and they ran into a mountain lion, they may be startled, but they would not be afraid. They would be humble. LaPointe explained that people today are afraid of everything, which he said accounts for all the strife of contemporary living. He said we can find solutions, if we are humble.

“I know you can harm me, I know you can scratch me, I know you can eat me alive,” LaPointe said of the mountain lion. “But I’m just walking here.”


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.