The United Nations has officially designated Aug. 9th as International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples' Day is celebrated across the United States on the second Monday in October and is an official city and state holiday in various localities. As a holiday that honors the Native Americans and commemorates their shared history and culture, it began as a counter-celebration held on the same day as the U.S. federal holiday of Columbus Day, which honors Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.
Many college campuses have dumped Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples' Day as have more than 100 cities, towns and counties across the country, National Public Radio reported. NPR adds that for Native Americans, Columbus Day has long been hurtful and conjures the violent history of 500 years of colonial oppression at the hands of European explorers and those who settled here — a history whose ramifications and wounds still run deep today.
The first state to rename Columbus Day was South Dakota in 1990. Hawai’i has also changed the name of its October 12 holiday to Discoverers’ Day in honor of the Polynesian navigators who peopled the islands. Berkeley, California, became the first city to make the change in 1992 when the city council renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2015, an estimated 6,000 native people and their supporters gathered at Randall’s Island, New York, to recognize the survival of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The demonstration’s success and the worldwide media attention it attracted planted the seeds for creating an Indigenous Peoples’ Day in New York City, wrote Dennis W. Zotigh and Renee Gokey in Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Rethinking American History. Serendipitously, Samuel Betances happened to be in New York City for meetings this week and witnessed the spectacular Indigenous Peoples’ Day parade. Here on Guam, the 35th Guam Legislature passed Resolution 214-35 on Sept. 30 recognizing Oct. 14, 2019 as Indigenous People’s Day.
According to UN documents, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5% of the world's population but account for 15% of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.
A huge challenge relates to maintaining and protecting indigenous languages in view of global hegemonic tidal waves that have precipitated the extinction of many of the world’s indigenous languages at a rate of one every two weeks. CHamoru is categorized by UNESCO as being in the near extinction category. Unless we produce a generation of young speakers, our indigenous language will suffer the same fate. Hurao’s Nene Academy and GDOE’s Immersion Program are earnestly engaged in preventing extinction. The Kumision I Fino’ CHamoru’s efforts to establish a CHamoru Revitalization Center dedicated to language continuity holds great promise.
Here on Guam, we continue to struggle for our indigenous rights and political self-determination as we pursue decolonization and nation-building. CHamoru scholars and family chroniclers are actively engaged in providing interpretations of lived experience as seen through our own måta or insight as an indigenous people.
Notwithstanding, our 500 years of colonial history have certainly taken a heavy toll in eroding our ancestral memory. Take the term Guam, for example. We are still uncertain about what our ancestors called our island. Guåhan resonates because it’s root is likely to be the pre-colonial Fino’ Håya word guåha, meaning ‘we have.’ I am reminded of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day poster I came across recently quoting a saying from the Delaware Tribe: “When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the White Man came, an Indian said simply, "ours.” I would wager that Guåhan comes pretty close.