For decades, U.S. school children learned that “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Recent scholarship has overturned much of what is known about Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of the New World. In the past three decades, there has been a growing movement to commemorate Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of or in addition to Columbus Day, which falls on the second Monday in October.
At Syracuse University, gratitude is at the top of our list of values. The University flies the Haudenosaunee flag alongside the U.S. flag across campus and opens major events with a statement honoring the Haudenosaunee.—Regina Jones ’07, ’20, founding assistant director of the Native Student Program
We recently caught up with Scott Manning Stevens, an associate professor and director of Native American and Indigenous Studies in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences and a 2021-22 Fellow of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Joining the conversation was Regina Jones ’07, ’20, founding assistant director of the Native Student Program in the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Members of the Akwesasne Mohawk and Oneida nations, respectively, they discussed the significance of Indigenous Peoples Day and how Syracuse University honors Indigenous people and culture.
“Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to educate others about our history,” Jones says. “It’s a call for awareness.”
What does “Indigenous” mean?
Stevens: From a scholarly perspective, indigeneity is not a synonym for “native” or “aboriginal.” It’s an assertion of a political and cultural position. Indigenous people are the minority in their homelands and, regardless of their cultures, have one thing in common: settler colonialism. You’d be amazed at the similarities between the Ainu in Japan and the Māori of New Zealand and the Diné [Navajo] in the American Southwest. We all have been politically marginalized and culturally endangered.
What is the significance of Indigenous Peoples Day?
Jones: Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to see a more complete picture of American history. It’s a story of survival and resilience.
Stevens: Indigenous Peoples Day invites us to reflect on the impact of our cultural and historic encounter with European explorers. The so-called “discovery of the Americas by Europe” began a long process of settler colonialism. It overwhelmed Indigenous people demographically, causing our population in what became the United States to go from 100% in 1492 to 2% of the U.S. total today.
Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to educate others about our history. It’s a call for awareness.—Regina Jones ’07, ’20, founding assistant director of the Native Student Program
What are some misconceptions about Indigenous history and culture?
Jones: Most people are surprised to find out that we still have our own languages, our own spiritual traditions, our own foods. We’re still ourselves. To become better informed, I recommend people to start at home and learn about the first Americans in their area.
Stevens: Few understand the impact that settler colonialization has had on Indigenous people. It’s involved many steps, like the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign of 1779, which was an act of genocide against the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. And federally funded Indian boarding schools, which, from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, stripped many Indigenous children of their culture. The recent discoveries of unmarked graves of hundreds of children from these schools have brought this horror into focus in the news.
Why does Columbus Day endure despite controversy?
Stevens: It’s complicated. There was a lot of anti-Italianism in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. President Franklin Roosevelt made it a holiday to acknowledge the contributions of Italian Americans and, by extension, Roman Catholics, in general. For many, the day is seen as a celebration of their ethnicity and religion.
How is Indigenous culture honored on campus?
Jones: At Syracuse University, gratitude is at the top of our list of values. The University flies the Haudenosaunee flag alongside the U.S. flag across campus and opens major events with a statement honoring the Haudenosaunee: “I acknowledge with respect the Onondaga Nation, firekeepers of the Haudenosaunee, the Indigenous people on whose ancestral lands Syracuse University now stands.”
Also, Pete’s Giving Garden on South Campus is home to the new Seed Sovereignty Garden, which highlights the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. We had a harvest event there on September 24. The Three Sisters have been the center of Haudenosaunee culture and traditions for centuries.
How does the University support Indigenous students?
Jones: Of course, there’s Indigenous Peoples Day, which was officially adopted by the University in 2016. We celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day every year with a variety of events and cultural festivities.
The Native Student Program on Euclid Avenue is a huge resource for members of state- or federally recognized tribes, supporting their academic success and holistic development. We also have the Indigenous Living Learning Community. Based in Haven Hall on Comstock Avenue, it enables Indigenous students to form lasting connections with other Indigenous students, faculty and staff.
There’s also Indigenous Students at Syracuse (ISAS), a University-recognized student organization offering a tight-knit community and sense of belonging. ISAS recently worked with the Native Student Program, Ongwehonwe Alumni Association and Haudenosaunee alumni representatives to complete the first phase of the Onondaga Art Installation on the Shaw Quad. This project, to be unveiled next year, includes commissioned artwork by Onondaga artist Brandon Lazore.
Indigenous people are eligible for scholarships like the Haudenosaunee Promise and other forms of financial support to help them remain connected to their heritage, people and history.
Stevens: Students and faculty can also take advantage of Skänoñh—The Great Law of Peace Center, a heritage center that tells the story of the Haudenosaunee through the lens of the Onondaga Nation. It’s located next to Onondaga Lake, the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day on Campus
The University is marking Indigenous Peoples Day this year with multiple activities, including a knowledge-sharing program about Indigenous history and issues in the Orange Grove, the exhibit Each One, Inspired: Haudenosaunee Art Across the Homelands at the Syracuse University Art Museum as well as a showing of films celebrating Haudenosaunee culture at the Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse.
This story was updated on October 19, 2021.