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We may have chosen the wrong date for Indigenous Peoples Day

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 9, 2017
  • Published October 9, 2017

In this painting by Dioscoro Puebla, Christopher Columbus is shown arriving in the New World — the West Indies — on Oct. 12, 1492. (Wikimedia Commons)

I'm not sure we should celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October.

Gov. Bill Walker signed a bill this year renaming Columbus Day in Alaska in honor of Native people. The previous two years, he had made the same action by proclamation. Alaska was already one of 16 states without a public holiday for Columbus Day.

The change has meaning beyond simply removing the name of Columbus for being an invader and slave-taker. It adds the name of Native Americans to that same day.

Should our celebration of Native cultures always come in the context of European conquest?

A different day would be better. Native Americans have a positive heritage much more important than status as victims.

In some of the country, Columbus Day brings pride to Italian Americans, another long-oppressed minority still depicted with negative stereotypes. Their groups have opposed taking down the statue of Columbus in New York's Columbus Circle.

Italians aren't to blame for the genocide of Native Americans. Why should these groups be pitted against each other?

Or do we now think Columbus stands for all Europeans? In that case, I guess erasing Columbus Day means that we no longer celebrate European arrival in America.

Europeans did brutally invade and colonize. The tide of physical displacement of Native Americans halted only within my lifetime. The tide of cultural assimilation continues, perhaps irresistibly, but still worthy of resistance.

Students should learn about the horrors of genocide against Native Americans. Society and government have an obligation to address the generational trauma and economic disadvantages created by these events.

Colonists knew what they were doing was wrong, or had the ability to know. Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria began writing about Natives' rights to their own land as early at 1532.

Captain James Cook, who made first contact with Alaska Natives in our region in 1778, wrote despairingly of the damage his own explorations brought to indigenous people in the South Pacific (a passage editors removed from journals published after his death).

Thomas Jefferson knew slavery was wrong but he did it anyway.

But Jefferson's ideas outlived his acts. He wrote, "All men are created equal."

Jefferson expressed European Enlightenment thought, beliefs that eventually peeled power away from racist traditions and other in-group self-justification, giving moral authority to those who sought equality and social justice.

Maybe those ideas even improved Native cultures. When word of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation reached Southeast Alaska, tribal slaves left their masters and returned to their home villages.

Or perhaps it would make more sense to refrain from labeling cultures as good or bad, improved or worsened.

Cultures and history don't work that way. Our species connects and reconnects in myriad ways. Every culture changes. Every new generation makes its own amendments.

Practically, there's also a social cost to labeling the dominant group as bad. Better, label bad acts. Yes, let's remove the symbols of those acts. But every person is good and bad.

America can't progress thinking of our country merely as a product of sin. We need a more complex, more inclusive self-image as a nation struggling to overcome a legacy of racial injustice. In that drama, even descendants of slave owners or grandchildren of Indian-killers can become heroes.

It troubles me as a white man — and I know I am privileged, in many ways, even blessed — when I am accused of being racist or insensitive to the travails of people born with fewer privileges (which is almost everyone on Earth).

Last week, talking with a wiser person than me, I said, "I don't think I'm a racist."

He said, "Everyone is a racist."

Of course, that's true.

Racism is inherent in the species. The key to the rise of humanity over other animals was our ability to act together in groups. We evolved our powerful brains for those social situations. Maximum advantage came with loyalty to your own group and hostility to others.

As social animals, we are defined by how others see us. Some of the most damaging racism is self-directed.

The internet exaggerates these reflected images. The racist and sexist attacks people direct at one another online surely contribute to the convulsions we are going through in our society and politics.

And that distorted mirror doesn't reflect only from one side. Those who police perceived racism do harm, as well.

The social media outrage game has real consequences. It silences good people, amplifies those who use intentionally offensive speech for attention, and trivializes real racism.

On the same day we were celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day came the news of Dove soap apologizing for an ad that showed women changing their race as they changed their shirts. The loop of images went from darker to lighter skin, suggesting to some it intended to say lighter skin is better.

But of course, that was not intended. Dove had long pushed diversity and feminism in its advertising, celebrating different skin colors and body types. It was previously attacked for that as well, because the advertising supposedly exploited these social movements.

Donald Trump's rise came partly in response to this kind of thing. Some people found it refreshing to hear a politician say what he was really thinking rather than parse his words carefully to avoid offense.

Unfortunately, when Trump spoke out as a racist, he also freed other racists to follow him and speak openly as well. On Columbus Day, still a national holiday, his statement seemed designed to provoke, making no mention of indigenous people or the cost of European conquest.

I resent being lumped in with Donald Trump. Speaking openly about race, even if you are white, is the only way to have authentic, thoughtful discussion. We cannot heal our racial divide without that.

In fact, I'm fine with Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska being on the second Monday of October.

But I think it's worth discussing.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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