About this time last year, I wrote a blog post exploring the origins of Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as the upcoming Native American Heritage Month (if you didn’t read it then or want a refresher, you can check it out here. I mostly discussed the history of these two celebrations, as well as the lack of Indigenous representation in books up until recent years. This year for Indigenous Peoples Day, I want to celebrate the good that has happened since last year, acknowledge the bad, and share ideas for how to contribute to a more equitable society for Indigenous peoples.
In just the short time since last October, we’ve seen some improvements in terms of representation, like how Oregon officially passed legislation making Indigenous Peoples Day a state holiday, instead of being unofficially celebrated as it had been previously. Some cities like Portland recognized it as early as 2015, but this step moves to celebrate it statewide beginning next year. We’ve also seen multiple bestselling works from Indigenous authors, continuing to increase positive representation in publishing, both for characters and for authors. (Excited for more award-winning titles from Indigenous authors? Check out titles like Five Little Indians by Michelle Good and Love After the End edited by Joshua Whitehead). In many ways, 2021 has been a continuation of the recent improvements in representation I discussed last year, with higher publication rates, representation on the pages, and more awards won.
That being said, it’s almost impossible to talk about the gains made recently without also discussing how this year uncovered horrific details regarding the treatment of native children in residential schools, or Indian boarding schools as they were called most often, in North America. These schools, funded by the government and church organizations, began forming in the late 1800s and shot up in use until the 1960s and 1970s, after which they declined in use but never went away completely. Indigenous children as young as six or seven were forced to attend these schools in both the United States and Canada, where they would have to wear uniforms instead of their traditional clothing, were forbidden from speaking their native languages and forced to speak English, had their hair cut off (despite the schools knowing that for many tribes, one’s hair was a sign of pride, health, and cultural heritage), and were regularly subjected to abuse and neglect. Schools were often overcrowded, and disease and malnutrition ran rampant (for more information about the condition of residential schools, check out this article from Scientific American. And while it has always been known that many children never saw their families again, specific data had not been widely available. But 2021 brought more information into the public eye, when less than six months ago a mass unmarked grave was found near a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, the largest discovery of this type in almost thirty years. Since Kamloops, almost 1,400 gravesites at five residential schools have been found around Canada, and there are currently eighteen other schools being investigated for more possible graves.
Boarding schools were just as common in the United States as in Canada, and unfortunately so was the abuse and deaths. Since the late 1800s, the United States operated over 350 boarding schools with hundreds of thousands of students, and some researchers estimate as many as 40,000 children may have died in these boarding schools in the US (Read more about residential schools in the United States from Reuters here. At an even more local level, initial investigations from Indigenous researchers show evidence of over two hundred gravesites at Chemawa Indian School, the last residential school in Oregon still in operation (for more about Chemawa, check out this podcast interview with Indigenous researcher Marsha Small). While we may never know the exact number of children that died in these schools, there is no doubt that the more we dig, the more we will uncover gravesites and further proof of abuse.
With tragedies like these recently uncovered and likely more on the horizon, it can be hard to figure out how to recognize struggles, celebrate improvements, and create change. Folks with Indigenous heritage will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day their own way, but those of us who don’t have these identities, finding small ways to create impactful change can be as simple or complex as you make it. It might look like unlearning harmful metaphors like “low man on the totem pole,” calling friends your “tribe,” or calling things your “spirit animal,” and encouraging your friends and family to stop using these terms, too. It might be advocating for the use of land acknowledgements in your workplace (something JCLS is in the process of creating!). Creating change might mean learning about Indigenous history and the treatment of Native Americans by the US government, or reading books with positive representation for yourself and to your children. Or it might be educating yourself about the tribes whose land you now live on. You can even keep an eye out for upcoming Rogue Reads books and programs from JCLS, which will focus on Indigeneity this year. There’re tons of ways to learn and create change this Indigenous Peoples Day and every day, we just have to be willing to do it.