When Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he discovered the Americas and gave European settlers access to the bountiful lands overseas — or so the old, whitewashed tale goes. But Indigenous leaders like Jean-Luc Pierite are working to change this narrative.

On Oct. 10, Pierite joined Brandeis’ Intercultural Center and a group of about 70 participants for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day event held on the ICC patio. Former ICC director Madeliene Lopez started this event six years ago “as a way to recognize and honor Indigenous communities,” current ICC director Habiba Braimah Ph.D. ’23 said in an email interview with the Justice on Oct. 21. This year’s event, which is part of the Year of Climate Action and was co-sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Office of Sustainability, and the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, featured a panel discussion with Pierite, a traditional Round Dance led by Prof. Evangelina Macias (WGS), and concluded with an Indigenous-inspired meal. 

Pierite is a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana. Since 2017, he has served as the president of the North American Indian Center of Boston. He began his discussion at the event with a reflection on  the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, especially in its replacement of Columbus Day. Over the past decade, over a dozen states and many cities have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day. More than 100 of the cities that celebrate the holiday, including Boston, no longer recognize Columbus Day.  President Biden issued a proclamation on Oct. 7 to designate Oct. 10, 2022 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This marks only the second time the holiday has been federally recognized.

For Pierite, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is important because it empowers Indigenous people to share the truth about the violence and exploitation their communities faced as a result of European colonization. By doing so, Pierite hopes to rectify the glorification of colonization that happens too often in the U.S. “I know it’s very important for us to hold onto that myth because it makes us feel nice about what’s going on today … but it’s a very thin veneer,” he warned. 

The City of Waltham acknowledges both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, putting it among the more than 20 Massachusetts localities that acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The Commonwealth currently only recognizes Columbus Day. A bill introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature in March 2021 would have replaced Columbus Day with the newer holiday statewide. Multiple committees voted in favor of the legislation, but it did not get brought to a vote on the state House or Senate floor before the legislative session ended July 31, 2022. 

Pierite spoke in support of the bill at a July 20 rally at the State House, according to Wicked Local. “In 2022, Indigenous Peoples’ Day means much more than correcting the historical record,” he said at the event. “This is an act of racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice … Columbus Day is poison; Indigenous Peoples’ Day is the medicine.” He spoke about the dangers of uplifting Columbus and similarly problematic historical figures and said the effects of this can be seen in recent events such as “rollbacks of civil rights and white nationalists marching in city streets.”

At the event on campus, Pierite drew attention to various issues impacting Indigenous communities today that mirror what has happened in the past. “We’re not just talking about what happened to Indigenous peoples, we’re talking about what’s happening,” he said. 

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SPEAKER: Jean-Luc Pierite led a panel discussion on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 10.

 Among several of the issues discussed, Pierite highlighted the persistent trend of the exploitation of Indigenous lands, initially at the hands of colonizers who continuously encroached on and stole tribal lands and now by corporate and government entities. He recalled hearing stories from his ancestors about the wreckage of their lands that resulted from the extraction of minerals and natural resources for trade and said there are unsettling parallels with what is happening today on Indigenous lands — the drilling of natural gas, construction of pipelines, and mining for lithium for use in batteries and other sources of so-called “clean” energy. Many Indigenous groups have called for an end to these practices and to “keep what’s in the ground in the ground,” as Pierite put it. 

He also discussed how formal Eurocentric education has been weaponized against Indigenous peoples to impose specific ways of being upon those “who have lived sustainably on these lands for millennia.” He pointed to the recent interest among academics in “Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” The Yale School of Environment defines this concept as “deep knowledge of a place that has been painstakingly discovered by those who have adapted to it over thousands of years.” Pierite said for him and other Indigenous people, it is frustrating that after so many years of being forced to “put ourselves away,” their traditional knowledge is now being co-opted and intellectualized by the very individuals and systems that compelled them to abandon it in the first place.

Pierite also shared with attendees the plight of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in southeast Louisiana, who has lost over 98% of its land to erosion and land subsidence — the sinking of Earth’s surface due to human activities and natural causes —  issues that have been further exacerbated by climate change. According to the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, the community has spent years fighting to move their community inland with no success. They are widely considered the first U.S. climate change refugees and are an example of how Indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. Of this, Pierite demanded, “Why is this not headline news every day?”

In light of these issues, it is no surprise that Pierite and Indigenous community members in the greater Boston area are frustrated with the recent decision by Mayor of Boston Michelle Wu to designate Italian-American Heritage Day the same day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

In October 2021, former acting Mayor of Boston Kim Janey signed an executive order designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. On Oct. 7 of this year, Wu took to Twitter to announce her administration’s decision to also designate this day as Italian-American Heritage Day. Italian-American Heritage Month is celebrated in October, the original reason being to coincide with Columbus Day.

“What was the purpose?” Pierite asked in regard to the mayor’s decision when the topic came up during the panel discussion. He continued, “We have people that are so hooked on the mythology … that they have to bend over backward … do mental gymnastics to be able to hold onto whatever scrap they can [of political power].” Days earlier, at an Oct. 8 march in Boston to demand that Massachusetts abolish Columbus Day and recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Pierite spoke to the gathered media outlets and shared a message for lawmakers: “Sign the bill that says Indigenous Peoples Day replaces Christopher Columbus Day, repeal any form of Italian-American Heritage Day that is on our day.” 

During the panel discussion on campus, an attendee asked how non-Native people can express their solidarity with Indigenous communities in response to events such as Mayor Wu’s recent decision. Pierite encouraged attendees to write to their mayors, city councils, and other government officials, to ask them to stand with Indigenous peoples. Pierite and Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion LeManuel Bitsóí also shared resources with attendees about legislation that Indigenous groups in Massachusetts have been working to pass, as well as the websites of national and local advocacy groups.

“It was said that Indigenous Peoples’ Day was the canary in the coal mine,” Pierite said. “If our political leaders cannot stand with Indigenous peoples for one day … when we really need it, what’s going to happen?”

Community connection through dance

Following Pierite’s discussion, Prof. Evangelina Macias, who is a member of the Blackfeet Aamskapipikuni Nation in Montana, led the attendees in an interactive Round Dance. 

Round Dance is a form of Indigenous dance that is practiced by tribes across the U.S. and Canada, often during powwow or other social settings. Different tribes have unique knowledge of and relationships to dance. The particular dance Macias led at the event was influenced by her own tribal knowledge, she explained in an Oct. 24 interview with the Justice.

In many Indigenous practices, Round Dances are meant to embody themes of unity, inclusivity, and community. These ideas were represented through the shapes the dance took — most notably, as its name implies, a circular formation with movement in the clockwise, or “sunwise,” direction. “That circle shape is a way of bringing everyone together in a space where we all fit,” Macias said, “We can also look beyond the backs of people in front of us … so in a way that’s a form of protecting and keeping an eye out for each other.” 

Round Dances incorporate hand drumming to set the beat as dancers move in the circular formation. Many Indigenous tribes describe the drum as a living being that has a spirit. As such, drummers will sprinkle tobacco on their drums as an offering before setting the beat, which attendees bore witness to at the event. “We make offerings with tobacco before we engage with the drum to make sure we are … giving thanks for the drum that is providing for us that day,” Macias explained. 

Before dancing commenced, the drummer Roaming, whom Macias asked to share their drum beats for the event, walked around in the circle hitting the drum to set the connection to the beat. Many tribes, including the Blackfeet Nation, follow the idea that drum beats are representative of heartbeats. It is thus important to feel its resonance before dancing. 

For Macias, who has witnessed and participated in Indigenous dance in a variety of contexts, it was deeply moving and empowering to see so many people engage with the dance during the event: “I was thankful to see … the level of participation in the Round Dance … [and to see] people maybe [being] willing to move in a way they haven’t moved before, or to move with knowledge that might be new to them.”

For the Blackfeet Nation and certain Indigenous tribes, Round Dance is a practice non-Indigenous people are welcome to participate in. However, Macias encouraged participants to be aware of the context of their engagement in the practice, especially in terms of who is facilitating the dance and the ancient knowledge it embodies. Recognizing oral histories and lineages is especially important: “Without lineages, there is a disconnect in some sense to the Indigenous peoples who have those stories,” she explained.

This awareness is especially important considering how Indigenous peoples have repeatedly been stripped of their ability to engage in their cultural practices. In 1883, the U.S. passed a body of legislation called the Code of Indian Offenses that banned many Indigenous religious and spiritual practices, including dance. It was not until 1978 that ceremonies gained some level of legal protection on a federal level through the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Macias spoke of the persistence of Indigenous peoples in upholding their cultural practices and keeping knowledge alive despite the process of colonization: “Things might have changed, but there are still stories and deep meanings behind each dance, behind each outfit, behind each song, ceremony, etc.”

Macias was encouraged by the turnout at the event and urged Brandeis to continue to take action to support Indigenous students and faculty. “It speaks a lot to the community at Brandeis and the willingness to show up for these events and to learn,” she said. “There is a strong potential for Brandeis to put action behind land acknowledgments, to support Indigenous peoples, to support current and prospective students and faculty who are Indigenous, and to sustain connections to local Indigenous communities.”

“We [the ICC] plan to continue doing the work to support our Indigenous community and invite all ICC community members to join us in amplifying the work that Indigenous peoples are already rooted in,” ICC director Habiba Braimah told the Justice.

The ICC hopes to work with the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion to “develop a strategic plan to increase Indigenous representation within the student and faculty population,” Braimah said,  as well as to “[revise] our land acknowledgment statement in collaboration with members of local Indigenous tribes.”

Braimah echoed Macia’s sentiments about the event turnout and the potential of Brandeis community members to make a difference. “Some participants even stayed past the allotted time to continue the conversation and learn more about how they can take action to better support Indigenous communities,” she said. “At the ICC, it is our hope that the conversation continues beyond Indigenous Peoples’ Day … As settlers of this land, it is important that we stand in solidarity with our Indigenous family to prevent the silencing of their voices.”