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Columbus Day: No Cause for Celebration

I'm proud South Dakota does not honour the originator of the Native American genocide, but not that we're alone in the union

An illustration of Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World from circa 1900. (Photograph: Corbis)All across America on Monday, people will be celebrating Columbus Day. I don't know what that means exactly, except usually there's a white sale where you can buy your sheets at 20% off. Supposedly, though, there may be parades, people get time off from work, school, etc. According to Wikipedia, "Columbus Day first became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906, and became a federal holiday in 1937, though people have celebrated Columbus' voyage since the colonial period."

I personally don't know anyone who "celebrates" Columbus Day. I know plenty of people who protest Columbus Day.

In other states, that is. See, 22 years ago here in South Dakota, Republican Governor George Mickelson replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day. That makes this the only state that honors the indigenous people of this land, rather than honor the beginning of their attempted genocide. Mickelson proclaimed 1990 as a "Year of Reconciliation" and changed the holiday the same year, with the help of the state legislature. It was supposed to be the beginning of a long road to improve racial relations in the state that has a tormented history on that score.

A statue of Christopher Columbus pulled down by protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, 2004, where Columbus Day is marked as 'Indigenous Resistance Day'. (Photograph: Luis Noguera/AP)

I always felt proud that our state didn't honor someone who murdered, enslaved, and raped indigenous people. Considering that it was the beginning of a genocide, this would be like putting a day aside to honor the memory of Hitler and selling sheets at a discount for the role he played in the world. Mickelson's initiative made me feel like we were a little ahead of the rest of the country: this is the same state that remembers the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Occupation of Wounded Knee, and unsolved deaths of our people in the 1973 incident. So, we celebrated Native American Day, not Columbus Day.

Yet, as Lakota people, we have all experienced racism in the state of South Dakota. Every single one of us, many times. My first time was when I was six years old and moving off the reservation. I was called horrible names, but I survived. And that was only the beginning.

I recall another time, when I was 18: my family moved to the nearest city off our reservation. It was a real nice, historic neighborhood; my stepfather was a lawyer. We received an anonymous letter in the mail calling us names and telling us to move back to the reservation. I took the letter and went knocking on doors trying to find out who'd sent it. Of course, no one admitted it; I went home mad and in tears. The next day, neighbors brought us casseroles, cookies, and fudge. But when they left, my mother wouldn't let us eat the food: she was paranoid that the food might get us sick (if one of the givers was the one who had sent the letter).

That wasn't to say the fudge and cookies didn't disappear mysteriously, though. Too many kids in the house.

So, 22 years after Governor Mickelson's proclamation of "the year of reconciliation", have the race relations in this state improved? We all like to think they did. But then, it's hard to ignore an incident like the one that occurred a few weeks ago, at the South Dakota State University, where Native American students from in-state reservations were subjected to graffiti in a dormitory bathroom that read "Praire [sic] niggers, go back to the rez" (listing specific students' room numbers).

This was the same insult I'd read in that anonymous letter sent to my family when I was 18. This recent incident has not stopped the Native American students from attending the university, and it is being investigated as a hate crime. But it shows that some of our citizens clearly still have a long way to go in learning to accept the people who lived here before them.

Our hope is that we all learn from this – and remember Governor Mickelson, who made that huge first step, and who died, aged 52, in a place crash in 1993. One day, we hope, the rest of the states of the union will join South Dakota in not honoring the memory of a murderer.

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