Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 30, 2024

Hopkins celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, marking the third time that the University has recognized the holiday. The Office of Multicultural Affairs and Indigenous Students at Hopkins (ISH) led the celebrations, including a virtual pow wow. ISH shared dances by Indigenous peoples from all over the Americas on social media.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was celebrated instead of Columbus Day. Traditionally held on the second Monday of October, Columbus Day has seen a decline in popularity in recent years. Not only at Hopkins but at colleges across the country, younger generations are rethinking the value of celebrating a man who brought destruction and genocide to an entire continent. Indigenous Peoples’ Day seeks to honor the heritage of peoples who face distinct challenges, from health disparities to the centuries-long erasure of their history and culture. 

The time to celebrate the true heritage of this nation is long overdue. Yet our leaders are not moving swiftly enough to make necessary changes.

While several states already celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Maryland is not one of them. Earlier this month, the Baltimore City Council voted to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day; the bill is still sitting on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s desk for approval. The city also has yet to formally acknowledge that the entirety of Baltimore sits on land taken from the Piscataway Tribe.

There is even less progress being made at the national level. Just this week, U.S. President Donald Trump promoted a distorted history of America, explicitly renewing Columbus Day as a federal holiday. Not once did he mention Indigenous Americans.

Much of Trump’s statement focused on the need to honor Italian-American history. It is true that, though many now associate Columbus with colonialism and genocide, the holiday was established in response to a series of violent acts against Italian immigrants in 1892. Today, some Italian Americans hold onto the holiday’s original purpose as a celebration of Italian heritage and culture. But this can be accomplished without reference to the man who decimated the peoples he colonized; he kidnapped and enslaved more than 1000 inhabitants of Hispaniola, where only 500 of 300,000 Natives remained 56 years after his first voyage. 

We are glad that Hopkins decided to forgo any recognition of Columbus, but wish that there had been a clearer acknowledgement of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some of the University’s social media pages mentioned the holiday, but there was no unified effort to honor Indigenous students, faculty and staff. Administrators like University President Ronald J. Daniels did not formally announce the holiday at all.

Beyond mere statements, the University must take further action to invest in Indigenous communities. American Indians make up about 1.6% of the American population, but only 0.3% of Hopkins full-time professors. In 2017, there were eight full-time professors who identified as American Indian; there were 11 in 2015. 

This lack of Indigenous voices extends to classroom content as well. Hopkins currently offers few courses on Indigenous history. The Bloomberg School of Public Health, however, offers the American Indian Certificate Program, which “equips scholars with skills to address health issues in tribal communities.” 

We would like to see more attention given to Indigenous peoples in the University’s Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion. In the class of 2022, for example, only 0.9% of students are Native American. That’s just 12 students.

The only explicit mention of Indigenous peoples in the 2020 progress report is in the footnotes, indicating that they fall under the category of underrepresented minorities. We think Indigenous peoples deserve more than a footnote.

As part of its goal to promote diversity, the University should focus on recruiting more students of Native heritage. This does not mean simply mailing more promotional materials to tribal schools, but also expanding financial aid and creating opportunities to prepare the next generation of Indigenous students for success. While there are no nearby reservations or tribal schools, the University should reach out through local nonprofits that serve Indigenous peoples. 

Of course, lack of Indigenous representation in higher education is not unique to Hopkins. On a national scale, college enrollment among Native Americans is decreasing — only 17% continue their education following high school, compared to 60% of the entire population.

The lack of Indigenous scholarship and study is likewise consistent across the country. Only a limited number of colleges offer a program in Native American studies; Hopkins is not one of them. 

Indigenous communities have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In an analysis of 23 states, American Indians and Alaska Natives tested positive for the virus at a rate 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic white people. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has had difficulty understanding these disparities because of a lack of data.

According to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Native Americans are at the center of two related crises: the pandemic and its resulting economic devastation. Tribal governments are responsible for providing their community with the health and social services integral to weathering a pandemic. Across the U.S., the principal source of revenue of these sovereign communities is band-owned casinos, which have been unable to operate normally since March. Without a significant tax base, many tribes are unable to afford necessary services, and Native Americans are left vulnerable to the virus that has ravaged even well-resourced areas. 

We’re glad that Hopkins is part of the solution. The New York Times recently recognized the Center for American Indian Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health as a leading organization on the frontlines of the pandemic. The Center has produced and distributed educational materials related to COVID-19 to tribes nationwide; provided direct assistance in contact tracing, testing and prevention; and secured emergency supplies like food, water and PPE for medical personnel.

Although Hopkins has played an active role in supporting Indigenous peoples during COVID-19, it can and must do better as an institution.

Currently, the University recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though it is not an official holiday. Earlier this year, the University celebrated Juneteenth for the first time by giving employees half the day off to “rest and reflect.” While this should have been a full day, we believe that similar action should be taken for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Of course, meaningful appreciation and support of Indigenous Americans requires much more than a day off in October.

Hopkins should invest in Indigenous scholarship by hiring Indigenous professors, as well as faculty who study the history and culture of Native Americans; this would allow the University to offer regular courses in that field. Outside of the classroom, the University should bring in more speakers and programs to explore Indigenous cultures. 

It would have taken only a few minutes for Daniels to send out an email promoting Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Instead, there was silence. Hopkins has already taken the first step of foregoing Columbus Day. Going forward, the University must take a more active approach to supporting Indigenous Americans and their heritage.

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