Celebrating Indigenous Peoples, Not Columbus

In Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day by Adrienne K.Leave a Comment

Sunrise ceremony for Indigenous Peoples Day on Alcatraz Island,
an annual tradition when I was in college

“Every Native American is a survivor, an anomaly, a surprise on earth. We were all slated for extinction before the march of progress. But surprise, we are progress.”

                         — Louise Erdrich, from First Person, First Peoples

Two years ago, I put together a series of posts about what is commonly known as “Columbus Day” here in the US. The posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here, if you’re interested in the reasons why this “holiday” is so messed up. But this year, I decided to do something different. I just got back from an incredible weekend at my 5th year college reunion, and spent some time with just a handful of my amazing Native friends and colleagues from college. I want to share some brief snippets of what they are up to, because in these friends are counter-stories to the common conceptions about Native peoples. In sharing these stories, I’m hoping to switch narrative from just talking about how horrible Columbus was, to celebrating the resilience and excellence that abounds in the Indigenous communities of the Americas. So without further ado, some awesome Natives I have the pleasure of knowing:


I spent time with my friend Waddie, who is a third generation silversmith from Cochiti Pueblo, making his family and community proud by creating gorgeous jewelry, using his Mechanical Engineering degree to combine tradition with new materials and methods. He was hustling all weekend, handing out flyers and business cards, and by the end of the weekend, even I was the proud owner of some Waddie bling.

One of my best friends J. was in town, an Oakland born and raised Apache, who after college, got her Masters in Public Health at Harvard, and is now completing her law degree at Columbia. She already has a bad-ass job offer in DC for after graduation, doing Indian Law at an awesome firm. All through it all she is the most grounded, loyal, kind, and hilarious friend I could ever ask for.

Then there is my buddy A., Navajo from AZ, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and since graduation has been working at JPL (NASA!), part of the team working with the Mars Rover. Despite his impressive job title, he’s remained committed to getting more Natives involved in science and engineering, sitting on the board of AISES, doing outreach presentations, and working to increase diversity at JPL.

My friend S. studied public policy in college, and then returned to Hawaii for law school after graduation, splitting her time between HI and DC. She now is the campaign manager for a senate campaign in Hawaii, using her skills to advocate for the rights of Hawaiian peoples.

Then I ran into my friend D., Northern Cheyenne, who I’ve known since our involvement in College Horizons when we were in high school. After graduation, she stayed on campus and got her masters (and was my intern, ha), then jetted down to New Zealand, doing some awesome work with Maori communities for almost four years. Recently she returned to her reservation, and in her short time home has already been doing incredible things. She decided, at 25, to run for tribal council, and received the most votes during the primary election. We’ve all got our fingers crossed for the upcoming election!

One of my other Native Hawaiian friends J, who studied civil and environmental engineering, is working back home at a architecture/engineering/consulting firm, and taking night classes towards her MBA. She’s also so kind and connected to her home in HI. I love spending time with her.

I’m seriously proud of my friend C., Cherokee and Catawba, who has been working in the world of undergraduate admissions for a few years now, leaving a lucrative career in business behind. She also stepped up and has been living in the Native American house on campus as a resident fellow, a position normally reserved for those much older than her 26 years. She’s been doing an amazing job, the students love her (and her husband), and I can’t imagine anyone better for the position. This year she’ll be taking on Native recruitment for the university, and I can’t wait to see the incredible students she’ll bring to campus.

I got to chat briefly with my classmate V., Navajo, who is working at an independent school in southern CA. She and I talked about the ways she’s been able to bring her Native perspective to the work, starting with small things like adding Indigenous Peoples Day to the school calendar. She has big plans, and I’m excited to see where she goes from here.

Then there’s my biggest fan and advocate, A.M., also Navajo, who got his masters in Management Science and Engineering after graduation, then went on to get a second masters in Education in NM. He’s now back in the Bay Area working at a lab, and anytime I’m feeling down about my blog or the crap I get from commenters about my identity, this kid has my back.

At our Native alum reception, I got to see my friend T., Samoan, who is off being a fancy big banker at Morgan Stanley, and is doing some awesome work with loans for low income communities. He’s also hilarious and so supportive, and managed to squeeze in some time to perform in his acapella group’s reunion show.

Along with T., I got to chat with U., who is from Hawaii, and is now back home working for Kamehameha schools, doing research and working with communities. She also got to sing with her acapella reunion. I remember watching her and T. perform when I was an undergrad, and being so proud that there were Native folks up there on the stage.

I also made a new friend, M., Blackfeet, a PhD student in performance studies, with an extensive and impressive resume already behind him in theater and film. We had a great conversation about representations of Natives in Hollywood, the politics of casting, Indian humor, identity, playing Indian, and more. He’s pushing back against stereotypes in film, and has faced a long and uphill battle. His perspective is desperately needed in hollywood, and I can’t wait to collaborate with him more in the future.

Finally, I went to dinner at the Native American house, and had the pleasure and amazing experience of chatting with the Staff of the house, all seniors, and all students that I admitted when I worked in undergraduate admissions. I got really emotional talking with all of them–I remember so vividly reading their applications, and to now see them as accomplished seniors, so grounded and connected to the Native community on campus, was so moving. I’m so proud of them, and I can’t believe they’re about to graduate this year. I know in a few years I’ll be able to add them to the list above, showing off all the fantastic and important things they’re doing, because they’re already such community leaders.

So why do I share all these stories? Because this is the Indian Country I know. These are the survivors, the anomalies, the surprises on earth. This is the progress that we represent. The side effect of the narrative of Columbus Day is an erasure of our existence back then, and an erasure of our contemporary existence now. The Americas existed before 1492, and despite the best efforts of colonization, we continue to exist, we continue to resist, and we continue to thrive. These snapshots offer just a fraction of my Native friends and colleagues, and an even smaller sliver of all of the amazing people that make up Native America. We are still here, and we’re not all sitting around in Tipi’s, wearing feathered headdresses, or speaking in broken “Tonto speak.” We are able to combine western education and traditional culture as a means to move our communities forward. When Columbus landed on the shores of the bahamas over 520 years ago, he started a legacy of genocide that nearly wiped the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas off the planet. We weren’t supposed to survive, but here we are. These young Native leaders are bringing Indigenous perspectives, innovations, and ways of knowing to science, technology, business, law, education, arts, and more, and this is something to celebrate.

So today, instead of celebrating a murdering “explorer”–I choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples.

(Thanks friends! Miss you already!)