Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order Oct. 8 declaring the second Monday in October to be celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day. While this makes many people happy, there have been a significant number voicing concerns about erasing history.
In direct response to Evers’ order, Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan said while he wholeheartedly felt Native American history should be honored, it should not be done “at the expense of other historical figures and other communities.”
He said people of the present judge our heroes of the past too harshly and he “shudder[s] to think how any of us will be judged under these new standards of moral rectitude.”
To address Donovan’s fears, declaring Indigenous People’s Day does not diminish or erase Columbus’s impact on history. In fact, no one wishes to forget the impact he had on the colonization of America. Instead, what policy makers wish to clarify is that the positive impact of colonizers has been dramatically overstated in our public narrative. The key isn’t to remove Columbus from the narrative, but to recognize the atrocities committed against Native Americans at his hands.
Columbus shall always be a historical figure, but there comes a time when people must be critical of their heroes and not gloss over their actions. An estimated 90% of the total population indigenous to the Americas died after Columbus’s voyage as a result of smallpox. While it may be easier to picture a history of heroic figures seeking noble goals, we must recognize that was not the case and bear that uncomfortable truth.
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It also falls on us to criticize history as our culture changes and progresses. It is our responsibility to view the past through present knowledge so past biases don’t continue in the present. We must choose the parts of history we praise and condemn, not based on what was allowed at the time, but with what we know now. It’s not about rewriting or altering the actions of the past, but by letting those around us know we recognize injustice and are no longer complacent in it.
“Through this executive order, we recognize and appreciate our tribal nations and Indigenous people and their resilience, wisdom, and the contributions they make to our state,” the executive order says. “Native Americans in Wisconsin and throughout our country have suffered unjust treatment — often at the hands of our government — and today is about recognizing that Wisconsin would not be all that it is without Indigenous people.”
The University of Wisconsin has also acknowledged the importance of its Native American students, but has had incidents in the past of derogatory “war chants” being used to disrupt meetings for survivors of sexual assault as well as vandalism targeted at Native Americans through the use of slurs.
By recognizing and dealing with these incidents, as well as adopting Indigenous People’s Day, the university feels it has taken steps towards rectifying this unjust treatment. And while we must recognize that the university is not wholly responsible for students’ actions, we must look at the atmosphere of our campus and ask ourselves why students felt this sort of behavior was acceptable, and what we can all do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
In light of conversations about the ways Native Americans have been impacted by the university, UW created a plaque called Our Shared Future. This plaque acknowledges the role colonizers played in stealing Native American land, namely the land UW is built on, as well as recognizes and respects the “inherent sovereignty” of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The plaque is supposed to work in tandem with several other events hosted on campus to honor the Ho-Chunk Nation’s relationship with the land.
This past September, Samantha Skenandore, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, gave a talk about this relationship and sacredness of the land UW is built on. The talk was meant to commemorate Treaty Day, which was when the Treaty of 1832 was signed, effectively removing the Ho-Chunk from their land. In her speech, Skenandore touched on the idea that history is written by the victors. But, even if the founding fathers impacted our history books, “they should not control the narrative today,” Skenandore said.
Skenandore wanted UW students to recognize that the land we walk on going up Bascom Hill is more than just cardio, it’s an ancient graveyard. Many students are unaware of the Native effigy mounds around campus, but their significance cannot be understated and their historical importance cannot go overlooked.
While we are here on campus, it is important that those of us who are not Native Americans recognize the severe impact our culture and political policies have had in establishing a dominant culture as well as a colonial power. The repercussions of these policies are celebrated for their effects that benefit us, such as attending UW. It is our responsibility to make sure we are all aware of the role we have played in history and the role we continue to play.
Evers has set the precedent — that our state is making steps towards more respectful and historically accurate acknowledgments of the past, but our university can do more.
That’s why I ask that Madison do what it does best: educate.
Having an ethnic studies requirement is not enough. Instead, we should look to how we remember other significant days in history, like 9/11, and on the day in question, allow for conversation, no matter what class you’re in. I’m glad our state and university recognize the importance of acknowledging the roles we have played in history and that it is our duty to take responsibility for those actions.
We must look back at our idols, men who controlled the narrative they passed on to us, and think critically about what factors influenced them and why we cannot hold their values. Instead, we must endeavor to respect the people of today and not allow ideals of history to gloss over the injustices they have suffered.
Ashley Petersen ([email protected]) is a junior studying communications.