In an empowering shift for indigenous students at Cornell, Monday was officially recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time by the University and the City of Ithaca.
Cornell approved academic calendar changes over the summer that renamed the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day, coinciding with Fall Break. In addition, Ithaca Common Council passed a resolution to do the same in September.
For many universities, including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia and UCLA, this year has been the first to recognize Indigenous People’s Day.
Emerson Shenandoah ’20 said that changing the name of the holiday was a great step because it reframed the historical narrative.
“It’s just kind of showing that … Columbus wasn’t really the greatest guy as well as that there were people here before so he didn’t just find an uninhabited land, he found someone else’s home,” he said.
In addition, Shenandoah said he hopes this change will help people better understand history through the perspective of Indigenous people.
“It’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day now, so people are going to think of us, think of the people that were here in the Americas before Columbus ever came and understand that where they’re living actually was and still is in some [places] on native land.”
Laura Lagunez ’16 said it does not even make sense to celebrate Columbus Day since Christopher Columbus never even reached North America in his voyages.
“The significance of recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not only making an important sociocultural statement for native peoples, but it is also pulling individuals out of ignorance and making them think about the why they are celebrating what they’re celebrating, and whether or not it is culturally appropriate or even historically accurate,” she said.
Although it may seem like a straightforward change, getting the name of the day changed was a lengthy process.
While Shenandoah said he thought the process took about 10 to 15 years, Ana Bordallo ’18, one of the current co-chairs of the Native American Students at Cornell, said that the timeline “depends on who you ask.”
“I will tell you that it’s been decades,” she said. “In the past, it used to just be students coming out with poster boards and going and protesting Columbus Day, and they would have professors come and speak at Ho Plaza. That’s been going on for over two decades. There’s the idea that we build off of what happened before, and when we’re looking at Indigenous Peoples’ Day, that’s how I see it. You’re building off each generation of students.”
Despite this step in the right direction, there are many other challenges that the indigenous population at Cornell still faces.
“While it’s a nice gesture, and I appreciate that the University has chosen to officially recognize the holiday, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t more work left to do to improve the experiences of indigenous students, faculty and staff on campus,” Skye Hart ’18 said.
Bordallo said that the change is a continual process and the next steps will not occur instantaneously.
“When we’re talking about further dialogue and further issues that need to happen, it doesn’t just change overnight,” Bordallo said. “Change doesn’t happen overnight, and these relationships between indigenous peoples and I guess, their colonizers, is still evolving.”
For example, Bordallo explained how Cornell has yet to formally recognize that it is on Cayuga land.
“They’ve made steps,” she said. “For instance, inviting a Cayuga representative to President Pollack’s inauguration, but you know the school has yet to recognize that they are on Cayuga land and that they are continuously on the lands that were colonized and that this land originally and to this day still belongs to the Cayuga people, so it’s a continuous relationship. Without recognizing that relationship, further dialogues won’t be possible.”
Additionally, Shenandoah described the culture shock that indigenous students face when transitioning to college as a barrier to students completing their degrees.
“It’s a really big difference coming from a reservation and going to a university,” he said. “It makes you feel like you’re not doing as much as you could if you were at a reservation or somewhere your community is.”
However, Shenandoah emphasized the importance for indigenous students to get a college degree and use their education to make a difference.
“I believe that it’s very important to stay in school,” he said. “Many drop out because of the culture shock and I believe more people should stay in school because the reason we’re here in school, most of us, is so that we can go back and make our communities better.”
Bordallo said that some of the main priorities for NASAC this semester are to connect more with the local Cayuga community as well as to focus internally on identity building and cultural competency.
“We’re also working on this idea of in-powerment,” she said. “It’s a little bit different than empowerment in that the E-board isn’t giving these students power because they already have power within themselves, we’re just helping them to realize it.”