Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 20: Indigenous Peoples’ Day


Before we forget, here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s a link to subscribe to our Patreon, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, here’s a fund tracker that breaks down how we spend our money, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone forwarded them to you. 

Hi friends,

What a great conversation with Sophonie last night about organizing and about the role that we can all play in our communities moving into the next few months. We are so thankful to everyone who showed up and everyone who makes this speaker series possible by supporting our work on Patreon. If you missed it, you can check out our Speaker Synthesis or subscribe to our Patreon for access to full recordings of all of our speakers.

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day! In 2020, we hope that many of our readers have a healthy skepticism of the person many of us grew up “celebrating” on this day each year, Christopher Columbus, but we want to take a few moments today to get us all on the same page.


When Columbus arrived in the islands now known as the Bahamas and Hispaniola, he brought disease, he enslaved many Native people and brought them back to Europe for display, and built forts that would continue to host his colonist crew, who also enslaved and killed many Taíno islanders.

In his six transatlantic journeys between Spain and the Caribbean, Columbus oversold the prospects for gold to the king and queen, who were funding his expeditions. Unable to find any gold at all whatsoever, Columbus and his crew decided to take what he knew he could sell back in Europe: over 500 Taíno islanders, “after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.” Columbus commanded all Taíno people aged 14 and older to bring back gold dust every three months, lest the colonizers cut off their hands, causing many to bleed to death. The Taíno people resisted, refusing to grow crops, which resulted in widespread famine and disease.

Columbus’s journal reflects those desires to subjugate, noting the ways the Lucayan and Arawak people of the islands greeted his crew with food and water; Columbus wrote about them, “with 50 men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” He also wrote to an acquaintance that “there are many dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to 10 are now in demand.”

The problem of Columbus did not end when his 17 ships and 1500 men eventually died out or returned to Spain, however. Not only had their influence wiped out nearly all of the Indigenous population of the islands they occupied (when the British arrived on the shores of the Bahamas in the early 1600s to begin their colonization, the islands had been deserted for more than a century), but also, it set the stage for the hundreds of years of colonization that followed. It decimated Indigenous groups in the region, which normalized violence against Native people in the Americas by any and all Europeans who landed in the “new” world. Columbus’s crew began a domino effect of violence and terror toward Indigenous people that eventually killed over 90% of the American population, which was over 55 million people.

Beyond this, the American education system’s hero worship of colonizers perpetuates a false sense of superiority of Eurocentric values, language, and appearances. The fact that we learn about the “destiny” of Columbus and of the Mayflower, but not the genocide that they spurred, not the loss of the millions of lives and thousands of cultures, languages, and customs, isn’t just ignorant, it’s dangerous. Anti-Indigenous sentiment, bred by Columbus and carried by every ship that landed on these “new” shores, can be credited with everything from the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the lack of protections for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women today.

Not convinced yet? Here’s an extremely graphic but contextually important excerpt of writing by Bartolome de las Casas, who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502 at 18 years old, participated heavily in the subjugation and violence toward the Taíno people, and then continued the brutality toward enslaved Africans soon introduced to the islands. De las Casas later became a Dominican friar and confessed all he had seen in “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.”

“They [Spanish explorers] forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders, shouting, ‘Wriggle, you little perisher.’”

Lakota Peoples’ Law Project was founded in collaboration with a group of Lakota grandmothers in North and South Dakota who asked for legal help investigating why so many Native American children were taken into foster care.  


While these facts are significantly less important than the aforementioned, it feels worth mentioning the ways that white supremacy culture’s revisionist history has just added insult to injury re: Columbus facts:

  1. Columbus wasn’t the first European explorer to land in (what is now considered) the Americas. Scholars believe this was Leif Erikson nearly 500 years earlier. 
  2. Columbus never even stepped foot on (what is now considered) North American soil. Rather, he made landfall in (what’s now known as) the Bahamas and Hispaniola and eventually landed in Central and South America.
  3. The first “Columbus Day” celebration was held in New York in 1792 as a means of celebrating Italian heritage. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday on October 12 each year. In 1971, the holiday’s date was changed to the second Monday in October. 
  4. Columbus’s ships weren’t even named the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Historians believe they were La Gallega, the Santa Clara (the Niña may have been a nickname?), and the Pinta’s real name remains unknown. Like, I’m sorry, but not even the ship’s names are real? I feel like this is foundational second grade American education knowledge. Wonder what else we’ve been taught that was just abjectly false under the pretense of making information palatable/minimizing genocidal behavior by all means necessary? Feeling very annoyed at this small fact, which I realize is misdirected rage but c’est la vie. – Emily


It’s just… so tired. Clinging to white supremacy and trying to call it anything but that is just… so tired. We can do better. Our friends and neighbors deserve better. Our baseline human consciousness deserves better. 


Okay important note here: Emily realized this newsletter was getting too long this week to write our own section about this (tbh, we’d rather just highlight some of the incredible work Indigenous leaders are doing throughout the world). With 574 federally and state recognized tribes, and hundreds more that the federal government fails to recognize,there is so much breadth and depth to the influence of Indigenous folks in our society. These resources will NOT be comprehensive (we don’t even mention the thousands of leaders working toward Indian child welfare, against domestic violence, for restorative justice, or for tribal sovereignty (just to name a few other things we know leaders are doing right now)). BUT never fear, there is so much to celebrate and to learn about and we promise this won’t be our only issue about Indigenous history in the United States and the rest of the Americas. 


Today, NDN Collective launches their long awaited initiative, LANDBACK, a mutli-faceted campaign to get Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands, and empower Indigenous people across Turtle Island with the tools and strategies to do LANDBACK work in their own communities. LANDBACK means varied things to various people in various Indigenous communities, but always centers around land rights restoration, connection with sustainable land and water use practices, and long term healing of ancestral (and present-day) wounds. We’re really excited to support NDN Collective and really, really excited for the ways it challenges so much of how we’ve been taught to think about property ownership, consent, and our shared history. We really love this Yellowhead Red Paper on Canada’s landback goals, too. 


We know we’ve mentioned this before, but we highly recommend downloading the Native Land App to pay notice to whose ancestors occupied this land before and throughout its colonization. 

Emily, writing from what’s now Hilton Head, SC, is on historic Yamasee and Cusabo land.

Ellie, writing from Denver, CO, is on land occupied by the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute, and Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires and Sioux Nation). 

It also feels important to note that there are still 574 Native American groups (and that doesn’t even count those unrecognized by state or federal governments) living in our world and they are in no way monolithic. In your search to know whose ancestral land you’re on, explore whether their current descendants are your neighbors, whether they were moved by force to another part of the country during the execution of the Indian Removal Act, and if there are nearby reservations (Federally recognized or otherwise) that you can learn more about. 

Why should we know whose ancestral land we’re occupying? 

We think it goes without saying that there is inherent value in knowing the history of where you live. But as Native Land’s developer, Victor Temprano, a Canadian who was “born in traditional Katzie territory and raised in the Okanagan” stated, this app is not just for “historical curiosity.” Temprano explains, “Western maps of Indigenous nations are very often inherently colonial, in that they delegate power according to imposed borders that don’t really exist in many nations throughout history,” Temprano explains on the site. “They were rarely created in good faith, and are often used in wrong ways.”

Knowing whose ancestral land that we now call home gives us an opportunity for collective reckoning with our nation’s colonizer past, and a more honest perspective of the land, the culture, the crops, and the bloodshed that shaped the world around us. We owe it to our shared humanity to know whose land we’re on and to fight like hell to preserve, uplift, and amplify the words and opportunities for the wellbeing of their descendants today. 


The Red Deal is an initiative to build upon the ideas of the Green New Deal.

TLDR: what’s the Green New Deal? A piece of legislation introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), calling for a nationwide approach to address climate change to avert a potential climate disaster, largely inspired by the Green New Deal originally popularized by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led grassroots organization that built upon organizing knowledge of Native, Black, and brown communities. The Green New Deal calls for “clean-energy jobs, infrastructure, decarbonization, and support of vulnerable “frontline” communities. Included in the list of frontline communities are Indigenous folks, the land’s first people, who only see a dedicated section to the history and destruction of community, culture, and health and on the last page of the bill.”

SO, the Red Deal is the construction of Indigenous community members, particularly Native people, young people, and poor people, written to build on the Green New Deal. The Red Deal has four core tenets: (1) what creates crisis cannot solve it; (2) change must come from below and move to the left; (3) politicians can’t do what mass movements do; and (4) the climate conversation must move from theory to action.

“We draw from Black abolitionist traditions to call for divestment away from the criminalizing, caging, and harming of human beings AND divestment away from the exploitative and extractive violence of fossil fuels,” the Red Nationexplains of the first tenet on their website. “Proposed discretionary spending for national security in 2020 comes in at $750 billion … And only $66 billion of discretionary funds are spent on healthcare each year … This proves there is an overabundance of energy and resources that go into demonizing Indigenous water protectors and land defenders, Muslims, Black people, Mexicans, women, LGBTQ2+, and poor people.”

Most notably, the Red Deal responds to the Green New Deal that the bill does not call to end fossil fuel consumption. Indigenous leaders behind the Red Deal believe the Green New Deal should include language that explicitly bans fracking and every form of resource extraction, that calls for building mass, broad coalitions rather than concentrating power at the top (in government), and centering Indigenous people who have been at the forefront since European colonizers landed on the Americas’ shores. 


The Water Protectors is an organization whose goal is to block pipeline construction that would threaten water supplies and sacred sites along its path; the organization is most famous for their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL in 2016 and beyond) and was composed initially of Standing Rock Sioux members. The resistance at Standing Rock was largely inspired by the Rosebud Sioux’s resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline which continues to threaten the Cheyenne River and surrounding region. The resistance was also inspired by the Lummi Nation’s oppositionto the Cherry Point pipeline that ultimately shut down the construction of a pipeline threatening fishing treaties for the tribe. 

The Standing Rock Sioux has staved off DAPL construction efforts, for now. In March 2020, a federal judge ruled that the government had not studied the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment” enough, and ordered the United States Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental impact review. In July 2020, a District Court judge issued a ruling for the pipeline to be shut down and emptied of oil pending a new environmental review. The temporary shutdown order was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals on August 5, though the environmental review was ordered to continue.

Those who Stand with Standing Rock at the Oceti Sakowin encampment will continue to fight the pipeline to “protect our water, our sacred places, and all living beings.” You can read more about the Standing Rock litigation here. You can also read an interview with Lakota Activist, Grandmother Cheryl Angel, as she explains the intersections of the violence of pipelines with the implicit and explicit violence against Native Americans normalized by hundreds of years of brutality here


Indigenizing the News is a digital magazine dedicated to Indigenous voices, communities, and contemporary issues. Each month, Indigenizing the News sends a “monthly news-focused issue to subscribers, publishes original writing on the website, provides educational resources, and partners with other newspapers in pursuit of increasing Indigenous representation in the media.” Run by a Yale student of Ojibwe and South Asian descent, this resource has so much to “educate ourselves, evaluate our relationship to Indigenous peoples and communities, and pursue meaningful forms of justice.”  

So much to learn, so much to do, so thankful that we live in an era with so much access to information that we can send out these newsletters each week to share more honest glimpses of our shared history with all of you. Signing off with this video and a quote we read this weekend and fell in love with:

NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us
shoving at the thing from all sides
to bring it down. 

– Revolutionary Letter #8, Diane Di Prima

Talk to you Friday (with a surprise, of sorts)! 

In Solidarity, 
Ellie and Emily

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