Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 24, 2020

Hopkins celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day

By LEELA GEBO | October 16, 2020

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COURTESY OF LEELA GEBO

The University celebrated its third annual Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 12. 

The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) and Indigenous Students at Hopkins (ISH) hosted Dennis E. Seymour to deliver a virtual Indigenous Peoples’ Day talk on Oct. 12. Seymour is a former dean emeritus of the Community College of Baltimore County School of Business, Criminal Justice and Law.

This is the third year the University has recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Earlier this month, the Baltimore City Council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the city. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has not yet signed the bill. 

Because the campus is closed to student gatherings for public health reasons, there was no in-person powwow as there have been in previous years. However, the evening lecture began with a virtual powwow featuring videos and images of powwows that took place before 2020. 

At the event, ISH President Garryn Bryant, a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and descendant of the Cheyenne and Choctaw Nations, noted that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is to celebrate the perseverance of a culture that have historically been discriminated against. 

“It used to be so scary to even be a native person. People didn’t even want to say they were native lest they feared they would be killed or have the government come after them,” she said. “Our culture is preserved through our family passing it down through generations, holding on to what we still have, even if our language or religion was taken away. We celebrate fully and happily every day.” 

Purpose of Indigenous Peoples Day 

Seymour’s lecture focused on the history of genocide against Indigenous peoples in the United States. According to him, Columbus Day celebrates such violence. 

“With Indigenous Peoples’ Day we’re moving past the pack of lies that ‘Columbus discovered this country,’” he said. “It’s very difficult because there’s a great sense of pride from the Italian-American community ... but we have to understand what the real history is and what we can do about it.” 

According to freshman Jeremy Giles, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day non-Indigenous peoples need to think about their country’s history. 

“It's a day where you should always take a minute and reflect on how so much of what we have was taken from people who lived here who were genocided,” he said. “It’s also a day to remember that Indigenous people are not just something of the past but are very much alive today.” 

Seymour noted that violence against Indigenous peoples continues to today and throughout recent history; between 1973 and 1977, 3,406 Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized. As recently as 2007, the Mayor of Houston declared that it is time to stop apologizing to Indigenous peoples because, he stated, all that happened to them was that “they were whipped in a war.” 

Despite the continued prejudice against Indigenous peoples, Seymour believes that there is hope in the rising movement for recognition of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“We’re still here. We still enjoy our culture. The 2010 census in the United States reported 58,000 Native Americans in Maryland alone. In 2000, there were 39,000 declared Native Americans in Maryland,” he said. “I don’t think that we gained 20,000 Indians in 10 years, but people are starting to recognize it.” 

University support for Indigenous students 

At Hopkins, Indigenous students make up the least-represented minority group. In an interview with The News-Letter, Bryant noted that the University has been making an effort to listen to Indigenous students’ input in addressing this problem. 

“I am so proud of this University for the support they have shown us,” she said. “They’ve been actively working with the suggestions we’ve been making and they acknowledge the issue and want us to help grow the community here.” 

She recalled her first visit to OMA when she noticed that no Indigenous flags were present among flags on the walls. As soon as she brought up the issue, the Office met with Indigenous students to determine which Indigenous flags they should hang. 

ISH treasurer Connor Wall, a descendant of the Guyanese Arawak who also has Black, East Indian and white roots, wants to see University support for Indigenous students outside of OMA. 

“The staff in OMA I’ve worked with have done a good job at listening to what students need. However, the discussion feels isolated to OMA,” he said. “The University could do more work in creating interdisciplinary discussions—from political theories to health research to history, we should look at how Indigenous communities are suffering and why that is the case.” 

He also noted that the University should actively recruit students of Indigenous backgrounds, saying that ISH has had trouble staying afloat in the past because it lacks the large membership base of other student organizations. He also voiced support for students joining ISH out of curiosity about Indigenous cultures — Wall does not identify with his Indigenous heritage yet joined to learn more about his family background. 

Furthering the recognition of Indigenous Peoples

Although Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to come together in celebration, Seymour noted that there are great variations between Indigenous tribes. 

“We are as different from one another — tribe-to-tribe — as the Italians and the Swedes,” he said. 

There currently are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

According to Wall, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to celebrate the diversity of Indigenous identity and unite under it. 

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be about recognizing that the Indigenous community, while it is so diverse, also has a lot in common,” he said. “There is strength in that somewhat-shared experience.” 

Bryant implored people with questions about the intricacies of Indigenous identities to ask those questions and expand their knowledge. 

“If that conversation doesn’t happen, you’re never going to improve,“ she said. 

She appreciated the University’s announcement of antiracist measures this summer, stating that Indigenous students are helped by any increase in support to minority students. 

Wall recognized that the Black Lives Matter movement is helping all nonwhite people in the United States. However, he cautioned that it is important to recognize that Black people and Indigenous peoples face different kinds of racism in addition to intra-group differences. Thus, the most effective solutions will be narrow in scope. 

Although the bill is still on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s desk, Seymour noted that Baltimore City considering legislation to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day marks a tremendous amount of progress. Two years ago, Seymour and other Indigenous organizers met with the Baltimore City Council and tried to convince them to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. At the time, Baltimore city councillors refused to do so. 

“Today, Baltimore City celebrated. Mayor Young has on his desk an article that will make Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Baltimore City a law,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best there.” 

Bryant hopes that Indigenous Peoples’ Day will one day be recognized on a national level. 

“Columbus wiped out our people—he’s the reason that a genocide happened. The switch from Indigenous Peoples’ Day to Columbus Day would be celebrating the people here first,” she said.  “Instead of focusing on someone who caused that, we’re focusing on the culture and making sure that culture will thrive in the future. We were here first, we’re still here and we will always be here.” 

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