Indigenous Peoples Day event will show how holiday is more than ‘narratives of decimation, loss and genocide’

Silhouette of Tatanka Gibson of the Haliwa Saponi/Nansemond Tribal Nations.
Tatanka Gibson of the Haliwa-Saponi/Nansemond Tribal Nations leads attendees in song and dance during a gathering marking Indigenous Peoples Day n Philadelphia. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

For more than half a century in the United States, the second Monday in October has marked Columbus Day, a federal holiday recognizing the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. After a broad reexamination of Columbus’ legacy — and a proclamation from the White House — many states now recognize the occasion as Indigenous Peoples Day. 

On Monday, Northeastern will recognize Indigenous Peoples Day with a panel presentation and discussion featuring members of the university’s Native American community. This year’s theme will be “Indigenous Community, Scholarship and Research.” The virtual event will take place from noon to 1 p.m. ET, or 9-10 a.m. PT. 

Ellen Cushman, the dean’s professor of civic sustainability and English in Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, will take part in discussions. 

A rhetoric and literary scholar, Cushman has spent years researching the Cherokee language and Cherokee identity — a journey rooted in her own experience in becoming a tribal citizen. She heads up the university’s Digital Archive of Indigenous Language Persistence, a project that aims to preserve ancient Native languages. 

“That will be my focus on Monday,” Cushman says. “We’re creating a reading and writing environment that will allow for translation of indigenous language documents that are in archives across the country.” 

Northeastern students have been involved, working on components of data, computation and design, Cushman says. 

“There are so many of these documents in indigenous languages, and we need as many resources as possible, and as much documentation about our languages as possible, in order to continue feeding our language practices,” she says. “The more words we have, the more knowledge we have.”

Cushman will be presenting alongside Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer, associate adjunct professor of indigenous studies, and Sebastian Ellington Flying Eagle Ebarb, a teaching professor of design. Patricia St. Onge, chaplain and elder-in-residence on Northeastern’s Oakland campus, will offer an opening blessing.

In 2021, the Biden administration issued a statement proclaiming Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples Day, which called upon the states to “observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” 

Two years later, many states still recognize the occasion as either Columbus Day (16, according to Pew Research Center) or Indian Heritage Day. In 26 states and the territory of Guam, the second Monday in October is virtually “like any other workday,” according to Pew Research Center. 

“The federal government should recognize Indigenous Peoples Day,” Cushman says. “And some people may say that is a reversal or a corrective, but it’s important. The history of this country is one that should acknowledge the contributions of Indigenous People, the lives of Indigenous People — and should make us visible, as opposed to making visible the narrative of settlers; as important as they are, it’s been the primary narrative for some time.”

But Cushman says the day is more than specific narratives about genocide, war and colonization. 

“The goal of Indigenous Peoples Day here, especially, and more generally is to recognize that Indigenous Peoples remain,” Cushman says.  

“We are persistent, we are persevering, and we are still here — and that is really important,” she adds. “Narratives of decimation, of loss, of genocide — they’re not really relevant. There are many, many tribal peoples still in the Americans, and recognizing not only their claims to these ancestral homelands, but recognizing that they persist and struggle despite many odds.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.