Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates Native history



A member of the North American Indian Center of Boston sings with the audience. This event, organized at Coolidge Corner School, celebrated Native American Culture.

In thousands of towns across the United States, students receive the second Monday of October off in the name of Christopher Columbus. In Brookline, however, this respite instead honors the Native Americans. 

On Oct. 14, the Town of Brookline held a celebration at the Coolidge Corner School, with free Indigenous food and crafts supporting Native Americans. The push for renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Brookline started in 2016 when the North American Indian Center of Boston and Brookline’s Office of Diversity decided to write a warrant article. This item strove to recognize the ignored tribes and genocide committed after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. 

The event at the Coolidge Corner School addressed the problems of titling the holiday Columbus Day and had vendors bring awareness to Native Americans. The tables varied from handmade elephant trinkets and scarves made out of textiles from Laos to Native American jewelers. One of the vendors was Sister Re Leigh, who owns a company in Boston that uses magnets to help with self healing. According to Leigh, these magnets are universally Indigenous, and the holiday helped her to bring awareness to this type of therapy.

“I am a mix of Black Native so it was very important for me to be able to share this with my people,” Leigh said. 

Members of the Brookline government and North American Indian Center of Boston also came to the event to spread awareness about the Native tribes that exist in the United States. Brookline select board member Raul Fernandez, spoke to the audience seated in the school’s cafeteria about why it’s important to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“What you see here today, humble as it is, is the start of something much bigger. An opportunity to do something more meaningful in years to come. Moments like these have to be more than just about food and fabric. For us, Indigenous People’s Day must be a call for remembrance and responsibility,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez expressed how nationalistic holidays don’t tell the whole story of the founding of the United States. 

“Those celebrations ignore the genocide, the broken treaties and the Trail of Tears that took place on this land,” Fenandez said. “They ignore the role of educational institutions in stripping Indigenous people of their names, their language, their customs and culture. They ignore the unwillingness of governments to uphold deals struck and promises made.” 

According to Fernandez, everyone plays a part in fixing the damage that has been done, and people need to step up. 

“While none of you in this room may be at fault for these atrocities, we all as a community are responsible-responsible for making amends, for making reparations. It’s been said that there is nothing we can do about the past, and that is so completely wrong. We can remind ourselves of its lessons, and we can take steps to remedy its failures,” Fernandez said. 

Town meeting member Kea van der Ziel echoed Fernandez’s desire to bring recognition to Native American tribes. She also talked about some of the misconceptions about her work. 

“People accused us of wanting to rewrite history, erase history. That’s not the point at all. We wanted to amplify it, make it broader so that we could understand it, and that it could be reclaimed for some people who had been ignored before,” Van der Ziel said. 

Van der Ziel’s main problem with honoring Christopher Columbus is the ignorance Americans have for the founding of their country. 

“A lot of our history has not been discussed. We are missing the richness of our heritage when we leave that out. And it’s not only that, but for Indigenous people, they’ve been ignored. There are great efforts to actually erase them,” Van der Ziel said. 

Executive director of the North American Indian Center of Boston, Raque Halsey, who worked with Van der Ziel on the warrant, said there are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States and over 40 state-recognized tribes. Halsey herself goes to different towns and speaks with local leadership about different bills that need to be passed in order to support these tribes. She also encourages others to call their local representatives and educate them about these bills. 

But for Fernandez, the event was not just about bringing awareness to this one day, it was also about recognizing the broader struggle to bring equity to all.  

“Let it be a day of solidarity with those Indigenous people who still fight to preserve our planet and their own way of life,” Fernandez said. “And let it be more than a day; let this be a part of our everyday struggle for justice, equity and inclusion.”