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NAISO and NAH host film screening, continue push for Columbus Day name change

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The Native American Cultural House on Nevada.

The Native American Cultural House on Nevada.

Brian Bauer

Brian Bauer

The Native American Cultural House on Nevada.

By Kayla Raflores, Contributing writer

Often credited as the one who discovered America, Christopher Columbus and his legacy lives on in elementary-school history books and annually on the second Monday in October.

This Monday was federally recognized as “Columbus Day.” Because of this, the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization (NAISO) and the Native American House (NAH) hosted their annual screening of the documentary “Columbus Day Legacy,” produced by Bennie Klain.

“Columbus Day Legacy” explores the clash between Italian pride for the holiday, Columbus and the ongoing history of Native Americans.

The film showed two sides of a Columbus Day narrative: the Italians celebrating their nationality and heritage, and the Native peoples’ protests for a holiday clear of a name that represents the slaughter of their culture.

“In schools, what they teach about Columbus is that he discovered America,” said Lauren Kirby, vice president of NAISO. “They never said anything about what happened to the Native peoples, what Columbus did to the Native peoples. It was just ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.’”

Kirby said as she grew older she began to realize how much of a problem this viewpoint was because of all the inaccuracies.

She said this lack of a more detailed background is likely why many Americans recognize Columbus Day as another holiday, rather than a day, “symbolic of a condition,” Native Americans continue to face today.

“It’s not as bad as (the Native Americans) make it out to be,” a young boy celebrating Columbus Day onscreen said. “They’re just exaggerating.”

Possible changes to the federally-recognized holiday include renaming the day to “Indigenous People’s Day,” and having it in conjunction with “Italian pride day,” such that both Native Americans and Italian-Americans are represented.  

“Thankfully, different cities across America and different schools have been changing their Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day,” Kirby said.

A proposal was made last fall to the Student Senate, for “the University of Illinois to recognize Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day.” This was given a “recommendation to pass,” the vote 15-0-1. By late spring, this proposal had passed, but will likely be revisited again this school year.

Beverly Smith, assistant director of the Native American House, said the cultural house seeks to bring Native Americans together and to educate those with Native backgrounds and beyond about the culture, history and problems Native and indigenous peoples face today.

“Growing up, I knew that I was Native American, but I didn’t really know what that meant to be — what that identity was,” Kirby said.

Kirby and Smith co-facilitated the discussion and answered questions after the film.

“The Columbus Day Legacy” film screening is part of a larger film series presented by Native American House and the University Library. Held on the second Monday of every month through December, the series includes the documentaries “What Was Ours” showing in November and “More than a Word” in December.

Vicki Pietrus, graduate student in the School of Information Sciences, has attended protests similar to the one depicted in “Columbus Day Legacy.”

“I learned about the connection to the Italian Americans, and how they view their oppression connected to (keeping Columbus Day),” Pietrus said.

She also mentioned that without consideration to the Native Americans, their view was “misguided.”

Living in Illinois apart from her Native family in Alaska, Kirby grew up used to being the only Native American in her small, rural town.

“Coming here to U of I was a really big change for me.” Kirby said. “I was introduced to the Native American house. I was introduced to the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization. And through these two entities, I was really able to form my identity as a Native American woman.”

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