After 500 years of sorrow and strife, Arizona recently for the first time celebrated “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
“This is an historic day,” said Supervisor Dawnafe Whitesinger, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, “and provides an opportunity for our troubled communities to be empowered and not marginalized as they so often are.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey this year joined a dozen other states in declaring the one-time Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in a state with 21 federally recognized tribes.
Some decried the national movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“I believe this is a dangerous trend,” said Rep. Paul Gosar in an email to constituents. His district includes all of Rim Country and a host of tribal lands.
State Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai has been pushing for the declaration for years. The daughter of medicine man, silversmith and educator James Peshlakai, she assumed office in 2017 in state Senate District 7. She’s a Gulf War veteran who also served in the state House from 2013 to 2015.
The one-year state proclamation does not necessarily replace Columbus Day, but Peshlakai has said she plans to continue to push for legislation to make the shift permanent.
The slow shift from a holiday celebrating Columbus landing in the Americas in 1492 to a day recognizing the diverse cultures who have lived here for more than 10,000 years has spawned controversy — but also reconciliation.
“I don’t think that it takes away from the history of our nation,” said Whitesinger. “One of the things that is important is to be reminded of why we have such a great love of our country — to be able to tell the truer story of that history is important and not to take away from those efforts that have come before. We want to recognize the efforts of everyone who has made the country what it is and everyone who has been a part of that great history.”
Supervisor Jesse Thompson, a member of the Navajo Nation, said, “We need to remind each other every so often that we’re here together to do things to respect one another. I’m reminded of what our veterans have done for the land, the people, the government and the Constitution of the United States. I appreciate all the efforts to work together and to understand where we’re coming from and how we think.”
Native Americans serve in the U.S. armed forces at five times the rate of the overall population, especially women. The Navajo codetalkers are among the most famed veterans. During World War II, the death rate among American Indians in combat was five times the rate of other groups, partly because they sought front-line combat positions.
Supervisor Lee Jack, also a member of the Navajo Nation, said, “I appreciate this proclamation. It has been a long time coming. Right now, with the situation we’re in — we’re all coming together, helping each other. That’s what this great nation is all about and we’re all part of it and with prayers that we will live happily together.”
Gov. Ducey this year added Arizona to the growing list of states celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont have officially designated the day as a holiday. Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin recognize the day through a proclamation.
Scientists and archaeologists have increasingly revised the traditional historical view that Columbus “discovered” an almost uninhabited, wilderness continent. The seminal book 1491 by science writer Charles Mann summarizes the growing evidence that before 1492 the Americas were populated by thriving, cultures with roots dating back to before the last Ice Age.
These cultures had perfected crops and agricultural techniques and contributed to globally vital crops including maize, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, the rubber tree, vanilla and others.
However, research now suggests the viruses brought ashore by the first European settlers quickly killed perhaps 90% of the estimated 90 million to 112 million people living in the Americas. The immune systems of Europeans were shaped by the viruses that passed back and forth among humans and livestock like sheep, pigs and cattle. By contrast, Native Americans had few domesticated animals and proved tragically vulnerable to European diseases, according to a growing body of research.
By the time European settlers arrived, those cultures were already shattered by one of the most catastrophic chain of pandemics in human history, according to the research summarized in the book 1491. The pandemics that swept the Americas may have killed 20% of the global population.
Ironically, the devastating impact of COVID-19 — a bat virus that jumped to humans — has ripped through the Navajo and Apache reservations — with rates of death and infection three to five times as great as the rest of the state’s population. Doctors still aren’t sure why COVID-19 has hit Mative American populations so much harder, but a web of poverty and pre-existing health problems has played a role.
Rep. Gosar said the attempt to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents an effort to “redact human history in the interest of political correctness. I believe this to be a dangerous trend. American history has become a battleground and the enemy is gaining ground.”
Gosar’s congressional district covers northern Gila County and much of western Arizona, which includes the Tonto Apache, Cocopah, Yuma, Maricopa, Mohave, Halchidhoma, Yavapai, Hualapai, Havasupai and Piaute tribal lands. Gosar wrote, the violence and brutality of the exploration “should NOT be glossed over. However, it need not be amplified, highlighted and underscored.”
He continued, “The history of the world is complex. Every time civilizations clash, there are winners and losers, the victors and the vanquished. That’s not to say we can’t also honor others who contributed to the fabric of our country — but in doing so, we shouldn’t disown other parts of our history. Those who lead the charge to rename Columbus Day are the same flag burners who tore down our statues this summer. They seek to rewrite history because the history offends them. Yet, no amount of selective editing can ever alter history. What we can change is our future and in order to do that, we must know our past. Happy Columbus Day!”