Op-Ed: A Case for Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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Yesterday was the second Monday in October. By Connecticut state law, yesterday was Columbus Day. For 10 states and dozens of cities (including West Hartford and Bridgeport), yesterday was instead recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Others have written and spoken at length about Christopher Columbus, and the countless atrocities he committed. The case for taking Columbus off the calendar has been made and made well. Today I want to make the case for why Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be on the calendar.  

According to the Census Bureau, over 4.2 million people identified as Native Alaskan or American Indian as of June 2019. These people comprise about 1.2% of the US population. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are 56.2 million acres of Indian reservation within our borders. This comprises 2.3% of the 2.43 billion-acre U.S. land mass. American Indians make up such a small slice of the current population that their needs are often overlooked by state, local and federal governments. Only 6 U.S. Presidents have ever set foot on an Indian reservation, and only one of those was within the last 20 years.  

This is a population that is profoundly underserved and rarely given a voice in national conversations. American Indians have a 30% higher rate of heart disease and a 70% higher rate of intentional self-harm and suicide (which is even higher among youth) when compared to the general U.S. population. Only 17% of American Indians attend college and roughly 27% live in poverty, compared to 60% and 15% respectively in the nation as a whole. The Navajo Nation has a higher COVID-19 per capita infection rate than any U.S. state. This, and so much more, leads to an American Indian child having a life expectancy 5.5 years shorter than any other child born at random in the U.S.  

Indigenous peoples have made and continue to make significant contributions to the culture of the United States. American Indian language is ever-present in American life from common words like barbecue, hurricane and moccasin, to the names of 22 states. 60% of the global food supply uses crops or techniques developed by indigenous peoples. American Indian-owned businesses contribute $155 billion to the US and global economies. Games as central to American culture as lacrosse, tug-of-war and American football all have their roots in indigenous traditions.  

It is past time that we acknowledge and celebrate indigenous peoples, and the profound impact they have had on our society. We must listen to them as they share their experiences. We must learn from the wisdom of their words. And we must elevate their stories as they struggle to be heard. Establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the calendar is an annual reminder of our commitment to build a more equitable society. 

Damani Douglas is the Chief Diversity Officer for the Undergraduate Student Government and can be reached at diversity@usg.uconn.edu.

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