Inaugural holiday celebrates indigenous peoples day

On the second Monday in October, Fort Lewis College celebrated not Christopher Columbus, but those residents who were already at home in the so-called New World when the Genoan explorer, sailing under the Spanish flag, stumbled ashore in 1492.

On October 10, FLC’s first Indigenous Peoples Day celebration featured storytelling sessions, lectures, a multicultural potluck lunch, a photo mural dedication, and a concert by acclaimed Canadian First Nations group A Tribe Called Red.

It made for a day of fun and interesting events, for sure. But the real message of Indigenous Peoples Day is one of learning, sharing, and healing.

“It's pretty exciting. It’s really cool that it creates some dialogue on campus between the Native students and non-Native students,” says Joey Dell (Anthropology, ‘10), Student Support Specialist for FLC’s Native American Center and a member of the Ketchikan Indian Corporation in southeast Alaska.

“For the Native students here to have a voice and be able to say 'this is what we think of our histories, the histories from our perspective from all over the Americas,’ gives a voice to people who typically haven’t had a voice,” he explains.

In December 2015, a proposal to designate Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day on campus was passed by ASFLC and the FLC Board of Trustees. The designation is a logical and respectful tribute for an institution whose student body is one-third Native American and which is located near several thriving Native communities and important historic and archaic indigenous sites.

Two Stars Rising in the North at Dusk mural

"Two Stars Rising in the North
at Dusk," a photo mural by
artist Chip Thomas, was
mounted on the Mears

After the College’s designation and inspired by spurring from senior Native American & Indigenous Studies major Ruthie Edd, the Durango City Council in January passed Resolution No. R-2016-2, which states:

“Be it resolved by the City Council of the City of Durango, Colorado, that the second Monday in October shall be known as ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’ in the City of Durango to celebrate the contributions, the enduring culture and traditions of all Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples.”

Edd, a Durango resident and Navajo Nation member, saw the recognition of a holiday in place of Columbus Day as a way to give students, teachers, and the community a time to acknowledge and talk about the histories of Native American and indigenous peoples worldwide.  

“It can be really hard, especially for younger students, to be a voice for their culture. It’s really to celebrate and to heal and also to connect on both sides,” Edd said following the designation. “It’s a good platform to talk about these issues, and to really heal from them for Native people.”

Motivated by those successes, State Representative Joe Salazar introduced a similar motion to the Colorado state legislature. The legislation was eventually killed by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in April.

Despite the defeat, “it provided an awful lot of encouragement for us to move forward,” Salazar said of FLC’s leadership on the issue. “I’m very proud of the students down there.”

With these declarations, FLC and Durango are joining a growing number of places and groups that have adopted the re-designation of Columbus Day. First passed by Berkeley, California, in 1992, similar resolutions have also been passed in Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, St. Paul, Portland, Oregon, and by the State of Alaska. Most recently, this summer, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boulder, Colorado, each established their own Indigenous Peoples Day.

Joe Salazar

"Columbus Day started here in Colorado, and we need to end it here." urged State Representative Joe Salazar.

Locking arms

Coming together was the theme of the day.


Iris Prettypaint

Keynote speaker Iris PrettyPaint spoke on "Finding Hope from the Inside Out: Cultural Resilience and Historical Trauma"

At Fort Lewis College, Indigenous Peoples Day joins established Columbus Day alternative programming in the annual “Real History of the Americas,” a student-run day of multicultural events and presentations that has been held since 2008. The unifying theme is explorations of the many non-mainstream stories of peoples who have a history on the North and South American continents, including those of the Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Native, and LGBT communities.

“Real History began as a shared afternoon of cultural events between the Native American Center and El Centro, when the two groups were located across campus from each other,” explains FLC alumna and El Centro de Muchos Colores Coordinator Shirena Trujillo-Long (English and Spanish, ’00). “It came out of that, and from the idea that we have shared histories. So we said, let's celebrate that.”

Ruthie Edd

Senior Ruthie Edd received a
plaque from the Durango Community
Relations Commission for efforts
inspiring the City of Durango
to designate Indigenous Peoples Day.

"The goal is sharing those real histories,” she continues. “There's a lot of research that shows that people need to share their stories, feel heard, and contribute to the storylines of their communities. Indigenous Peoples Day is borne of that same desire. Not of hate -- this is not Columbus bashing. This is about celebrating histories. The goal is to make sure all stories are told."  

While no opposition to the College’s and city’s designations was visible in Durango or at FLC, resistance has risen on the state level and in other communities from those who argue that any attempt to eliminate Columbus Day is an attack on Italian Americans who celebrate the holiday to honor their Italian culture.

Proponents of the change, though, say that at the heart of the issue is not wanting to honor a man who, they say, engaged in genocide and slavery. But the real value of the change, they argue, runs deeper than just wanting to diss Columbus.

“I see it as a victory on behalf of indigenous peoples everywhere,” says Dell. “Columbus Day is not a day of celebration -- if anything, it's a day we recognize that indigenous people saw Columbus sail up to their shores. But Columbus' incredibly violent history with peoples of the Caribbean put a pretty bad taste in Native people's mouths about his history.”

“Indigenous People’s Day is showing a shift in the administration and the government by allowing Native people to have a voice,” he continues, “and also by recognizing that there were atrocities committed in the colonization process. It's good that that recognition creates a dialogue where people may not have been thinking about this.”

And that is a conversation everyone of any background can participate in.

“While of Italian descent, I enjoy learning from different cultures. I self-identify as human,” says Bryan Dalla-Cundiff, a senior Anthropology major and El Centro’s student liaison on the Real History of the Americas planning committee. “It’s important for us to know what our real history is.”

“That's why I'm in anthropology, because the further you go back, the more you realize we all came from the same place,” he adds. “We live in different geographical regions that in turn have a different effect on our physical aspects. And each region develops different cultures because that's our human psychological response to being socially active. That’s why it's important to remember that we all are humans."

Support FLC's cultural centers

Native American Center

The Native American Center fosters the academic success and personal development of Native American students and all who attend Fort Lewis College. They do this through academic, cultural, and social support. They promote diversity and inclusion at FLC, in the local community, and within the larger Four Corners area.

Donate to the NAC

El Centro de Muchos Colores

El Centro's goal is to provide a place for anyone interested in Hispanic culture and to assist with the retention of Hispano and multicultural students. The also educate others about Hispanic culture through food sales, Christmas Reenactment of Las Posadas, Luminaria displays, National Hispanic Heritage Month events, live music performances, guest speakers, and more.

Donate to El Centro