October 6: Honoring Indigenous People

Though many non-Native Americans have learned very little about us, over time we have had to learn everything about them. We watch their films, read their literature, worship in their churches, and attend their schools. Every third-grade student in the United States is presented with the concept of Europeans discovering America as a "New World" with fertile soil, abundant gifts of nature, and glorious mountains and rivers. Only the most enlightened teachers will explain that this world certainly wasn't new to the millions of indigenous people who already lived here when Columbus arrived.

—Wilma Pearl Mankiller           

Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, boldly exposes why the upcoming holiday weekend carries such divisiveness over what it celebrates and honors. The juxtaposition of Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day on October 11 serves as a reminder of a fault line that must still be reckoned with. 

I don’t remember if I learned about the discovery of the “New World” in third grade, but it definitely was taught to me. As a teacher of 8th grade American History, I like to believe I did a better job of balancing this perspective, but I can’t be certain. I know that I failed to adequately bring to life the current vibrant culture of indigenous people who walk the halls of our universities, who teach our children, who heal those who are sick, who serve our country, who help build our homes and buildings, who toil to bring food to our tables, and so much more. I witness a tendency for us not only to dismiss the millions of lives and cultures that were present before Columbus’ discovery of this land, but to truncate the existence of indigenous people to the time of this discovery. 

My heart desires the capacity to go back and undo the trauma and damage that was done in that moment and that has continued to be done, as well as how we have shaped our collective memory of all of it. I suspect many of you share that desire. While we can’t do that, we can open our hearts to a deeper understanding of the history and current day realities; we can honor the gifts, past and present, that indigenous people have given, and we can work to ensure that those gifts have a greater opportunity to be given and received. 

And in that spirit, I respectfully acknowledge the Hammonasset and other indigenous peoples who loved and tended the land we now reside on, for millennia before us. I honor the Elders—past, present and emerging—who enable us to revere and share these sacred grounds at Mercy by the Sea with guests from around the world. 

I also invite you to meditate upon the words of Native American activist, teacher and author, Dennis Banks.

Since the beginning Native Peoples live a life of being in harmony with all that surrounds us. It is a belief that all humankind are related to each other. Each has a purpose, spirit and sacredness. It is an understanding with the Great Spirit or Creator that we will follow these ways. And in this understanding we believe we are related to all other living species.     

May you find new meaning on this holiday weekend. 

Dr. Cathy Collins