Today, Columbus Day is celebrated throughout the United States. It is a nationally-recognized holiday commemorating a man whose brutal policies toward the New World’s indigenous peoples initiated several centuries of genocide and set the stage for slave trade in the Americas. For many, the impropriety in continuing to observe a holiday that for many Native Americans serves as a painful reminder of a history of violence and oppression is obvious. Conversations to change the nature of the holiday to focus on America’s indigenous peoples instead gained speed in 1977 at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, held by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Since then, various cities throughout the U.S. have opted to designate October 12 “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” a day devoted to celebrating the histories, thriving cultures, and resilience of Native American peoples, and to organizing against current injustices.
Even today, injustices to indigenous peoples and their legacies, both in the U.S. and abroad, abound. We need to look no further for evidence than our nation’s capital, where Washington’s NFL team continues to go by a racist slur of a name, despite widespread protest and even a federal court decision denouncing it as offensive to Native Americans.
On a similarly racist vein, the recently-released film The Green Inferno has drawn harsh criticism from indigenous groups and human rights advocates for its depiction of an uncontacted (fictitious) Amazonian “tribe” as vicious, murderous, and cannibalistic. A specialist for the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP) observed that movies like The Green Inferno, among other implications, “feed the prejudices that already exist in society in regard to indigenous peoples, furthering negative stereotypes that they are ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals,’” ones that need to be forcibly integrated into so-called civilized society.
Indeed, indigenous peoples throughout the Americas (and elsewhere) already face significant vilification from their governments without needing help from Western media and pop culture. Throughout South America, the criminalization of indigenous protest is an all-too familiar phenomenon that disproportionately threatens already marginalized sectors of indigenous society, such as women. In Ecuador, for instance, indigenous women advocating for human rights and the environment are common victims of meritless investigations and malicious prosecution, as well acts of repression ranging from libel and public humiliation by government agents and private actors (including multinational corporations) to surveillance, harassment, and threats to life and personal integrity.
On October 19, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will hold a hearing specifically aimed at highlighting the situation of such advocates in Ecuador. Accompanied by EarthRights International and Acción Ecológica, several indigenous and mestizo women will attest to the dangers they face as defenders of human rights and the environment, explaining how their gender and the social constructs around it make them particularly vulnerable to state-sponsored repression and criminalization. You will be able to find coverage of the hearing on our website.
In the meantime, we should use this Indigenous Peoples’ Day not only to commemorate the historical resilience of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but to recognize the numerous struggles (new and old) they face today, and to celebrate and support their strength and integrity in face of them.