What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?


People across the country joined Native Americans Monday in commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day — including North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and President Joe Biden, who issued the first-ever White House proclamation designating the day across the U.S.

In Chatham, some educators used the day to teach students about the history of Indigenous people, the first inhabitants of the Americas.

“It’s not really about — as with anything — blame or shame, because my students had nothing to do with any of that,” Amy King, history teacher at Chatham Central High School history, told the News + Record. “It’s about just understanding a cultural awareness and an understanding of our past which should give us respect for those who came before us.”

In her American History I course, King taught her class about Christopher Columbus and other explorers earlier in the semester. Using primary source documents, such as diary entries and letters from Columbus, her class talked about some of the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples by Columbus.

This week, she watched news clips with her class about the debate between “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” and “Columbus Day,” allowing students to discuss. Native Americans have organized to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day since the 1970s, to squelch the idea that Columbus discovered already-inhabited land and to push back against celebrating a man who committed mass violence against Indigenous peoples.

King also showed her class maps which document historical Indigenous territories seized by the United States.

“I show different maps, colonies, whatever,” she said, “and I always try to say to them, you remember, always, that this is Indigenous land.’”

Chatham, which occupies historical Skaruhreh/Tuscarora and Lumbee lands, is about 1.2% Native American, according to 2019 Census estimates, with more than 10,000 American Indians residing in the Triangle. (You can see what Indigenous land you live on by going to native-land.ca, by Indigenous-led, not-for-profit organization Native Land Digital.)

There are eight state-recognized tribes located in North Carolina: the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan.

Though debate still exists over what to call the second Monday of every October, Native News Online founder, publisher and editor Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) wrote Sunday that this year seemed different that previous ones. Native News Online was founded in 2011 to provide news that impacts Native Americans nationwide.

“At the mid-point of this past week, I realized I have spent more time actually talking about Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year than about Columbus Day,” Rickert wrote in that Native News column. “The idea Indigenous Peoples’ Day has taken over my thoughts and conversation is gratifying to me because it demonstrates movement in the way the country thinks about Native people.”

Rickert said he was especially grateful for President Biden’s declaration, particularly during a year in which American Indians “dealt with the renewed awareness of the Indian boarding school era” following the discovery of the remains of 215 children in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

For Chatham Central’s King, teaching such kinds of hard history is important — as is learning it herself.

Two summers ago, she took a course on Native American history with Dartmouth College’s Colin Colloway, professor of history and of Native American studies. King also uses his book, “The Indian World of George Washington,” to teach her current students.

“When many of us (teachers) were in school, it was not something that you went into in detail,” she said. “I took the course because I really wanted to do better with how I presented Indigenous history in my classroom.”

King primarily teaches using primary source documents, a standard practice in historical study, so her students can draw their own conclusions. For many of her students, her lessons are the first time they’ve heard about the history of Indigenous people — and of American settlers’ violence against them.

“One thing I get often from students is that they’ve never heard these things before,” King said. “They’re often a bit surprised, and I think when you provide the proof through the primary source document, it speaks for itself. So students are really questioning sometimes, ‘Why have we not learned this before now?’”

It’s important that you do learn it now, King always tells them.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.