Opinion: Celebrate Oct. 9 as Indigenous Peoples Day, not ‘that guy who was lost’


If Taos can act quickly, it can join 30 cities and counties, plus seven states, that have already recognized the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. That is the day that has been called Columbus Day since Denver started the tradition in 1909 to honor “that guy who was lost,” as one Taos Pueblo member said recently.

Already going on record to honor U.S. Indigenous Peoples instead of a European colonist and conqueror are the cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Farmington, Gallup, Grants, Durango, Boulder, Denver and Phoenix, along with California, Oregon, Nevada, Hawaii, South Dakota and Vermont.

The time is right to recognize and honor the people who “discovered Columbus” sailing into their world unbidden. Santa Fe, Farmington, Gallup, Grants and Albuquerque all joined the national movement for Indigenous Peoples Day in the last two years, and there are so many aspects of Taos that make it fitting that our Town and County governments join their NM sister cities.

Taos, as we know, is built on land farmed, irrigated, hunted and worshiped by indigenous peoples for over 2,000 years. The Town of Taos and the county, of course, take their names from the pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site revered nationwide for its strong culture and adobe Great Houses set against the soaring beauty of Taos Mountain.

Before the Spanish came, the Jicarilla Apache, Navajo, and Kiowa as well came here regularly to trade and build friendships and family ties. With dignity and perseverance, they all lived through the dislocations of raiding and trading captives in past centuries.

Today, dancers and tribal members from many other states continue to make pilgrimage to the Taos Powwow every year, affirming that this, like much of New Mexico, is still Indian Country.

Why change the tradition of honoring Christopher Columbus? Because, says Charlene Teters, a Native American activist and academic dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, more and more people are realizing it’s time “to move away from celebrations of conquest.”

As Teters told the Santa Fe New Mexican this year, “within the educational system, they always begin with the discovery of America in 1492 as if nothing happened before. It gets marked in time as the beginning of colonization and Manifest Destiny, without looking at who was here before. Many, many different nations were here before who didn’t survive that process.”

Scholars have noted for decades that Columbus wrote, in his requests for money from the Spanish Crown and his reports to them, that he made his voyages to enrich himself and his patrons in Spain with “gold and slaves.” He noted in his journal that “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts. . . .With fifty men one could keep the whole population in subjection and make them do whatever one wanted.”

In 1492 scholars estimate the population of Taino Caribbean natives living on the islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic, and the Virgin Islands at several million. The Library of Congress estimates that by 1550, the Taino were near extinction.

We at Taos Interfaith/Intercultural Alliance have presented a draft Proclamation to the Town Council and County Commission calling for adoption of Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 9 and on the Second Monday of each October. We want to help strengthen the already strong webs of friendship, kinship and mutual appreciation between Taos Pueblo and the many varieties of people of the Town and the County.

We meet each other in public schools, at University of New Mexico-Taos, at the food stores and markets, at the hardware stores, at churches of all beliefs and at concerts on the Plaza and in the park. We know none of us is perfect, and we want to encourage more collaboration among people.

All of us are here because the Pueblo peoples settled the Rio Grande Valley a thousand years ago and continue to inspire all of us with their peaceful way of life, their art, their wisdom, and their friendship after all the pain of the past.

Adding our Town and County to the growing list of places honoring our Indigenous People and their deep cultural roots and creative energies, in place of Christopher Columbus, is a conscious step in that direction. And it can lead us to acknowledge, respect and honor indigenous people everyday, not just once a year.

Olsen, Gray and Escalante are current coordinators of Taos Interfaith/Intercultural Alliance.