Keith Colton, the administrative director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, talks about Pow-Wows, and other aspects of Native American life.
To honor past and present native communities, people across the country on Monday are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day.
While the move to rename the holiday honoring the Italian explorer credited with discovering the New World for Europeans remains contentious, eight states and over 100 cities, towns and counties have officially made the change.
In Baltimore, an effort to rename the holiday in 2016 proved unsuccessful largely because of opposition from the Italian-American community.
Here are answers to some basic questions about Indigenous Peoples’ Day and how it’s being celebrated in Baltimore.
Why is there a movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ day?
Historians say Christopher Columbus landed in present-day Haiti on Oct. 12, mistaking it for India. Although he never arrived in what is now the U.S., Columbus has been celebrated with his own federal holiday for more than 80 years. For decades there’s been a movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and it continues to grow in strength and size. But why? Many people argue that instead of commemorating Columbus, the nation should honor the role Native Americans have played and continue to play in the country, says Elizabeth Rule, a postdoctoral fellow in American University’s Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies Collaborative and an enrolled citizen in the Chickasaw Nation. The 15th-century Italian explorer is tied to the spread of disease, the initiation of the transatlantic slave trade, and to violent acts committed against native inhabitants of the Americas.
"Indigenous Peoples’ Day redirects our national attention away from this tragedy to instead honor the resilience of those who survived Columbus and his trail of violence. Today, indigenous communities and cultures are alive, vibrant, and strong...” Rule said.
Yet in places such as Baltimore’s Little Italy, some argue the day is less about Columbus and more about celebrating Italian-American heritage. In the early 20th century, Columbus Day was established partly in response to anti-Italian and anti-Catholic discrimination. This year, Baltimore’s Little Italy held an Italian Heritage Festival in place of the traditional parade.
New Mexico, Vermont, and Maine are the latest states to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Berkeley, California, was among the first cities to make the change in 1992. In 1989, South Dakota became the first state to replace Columbus Day with Native American Day.
What has been done in the Baltimore region?
Alexandria, Virginia, will formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day for the first time this year. While the change has not been made permanent, so will nearby Washington, D.C. One of the capital’s neighbors, Prince George’s County, will start celebrating Native American Day next year.
What about in Baltimore?
In 2016, students at City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore petitioned city council to rename the holiday, which upset Baltimore’s Italian-American community. Then-Councilman Brandon Scott introduced the bill and to compromise, he proposed rebranding the holiday as “Indigenous Peoples’ and Italian-Americans’ Day.” The City Council ultimately rejected the bill, 7-6.
“This is a conversation we still need to have,” said Scott, who emphasized his focus is on other issues related to crime in the city.
There currently aren’t any efforts underway to introduce similar legislation.
Who makes up Maryland’s native community?
Despite the movement to replace Columbus Day, students are not being taught enough about Native Americans, says Dennis E. Seymour, the museum chair of the Baltimore American Indian Center.
“The majority of young people can name the ships Columbus sailed on yet they cannot name any of the indigenous tribes that occupied Maryland," Seymour said.
Today, Maryland is home to nearly 40,000 people who identify as American Indians or Alaska Natives, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Tribal communities stretch from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore. More than half of the state’s native population lives in the Baltimore region.
At least eight tribes or groups of American Indians are native to what is now the state of Maryland. This includes the Piscataway people, who are grouped within two state-recognized entities: The Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe. The Accohannock Tribe of the Eastern Shore earned state recognition last year.
Although not indigenous to Maryland, the Lumbee people, who moved from the Carolinas and settled primarily in Fells Point, make up the largest American Indian population in Baltimore City and County, says Ashley Minner, a professor in American Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe.
How can I learn more about and celebrate Baltimore’s indigenous communities?
Learn about the Baltimore area’s native people by attending some of these cultural events organized and hosted by local indigenous communities:
Monday, Oct. 14: Pow Wow and Evening Lecture at Johns Hopkins University from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Keyser Quad (Rain Location: Great Hall-Levering Hall) and a lecture with keynote speaker Dennis Seymour from 6 p.m to 8 p.m. at the Interfaith Center.
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