UPDATED at end to reflect the signing of Assemblywoman Monique Limon’s law integrating Native American history studies into high school curriculum:
Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, commissioned by Spain, may be considered a hero by European immigrants, looking for a new world of hope and possibilities, but there is no denying the misery his “discovery” of the Americas brought to the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Columbus Day, officially designated in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and now recognized the second Monday of October (Columbus landed in North America on Oct. 12, 1492) is not unique to the U.S. This sort of “holiday” is observed in other countries as well, including Argentina, Belize, Colombia and Uruguay as well as Italy and Spain. But the fact that the atrocities that came with the European colonization of North America are not being taught with pointed accuracy in schools is unsettling.
On the heels of Columbus Day, there is change in the air. Celebrating the explorer has been an obvious controversial subject, given that native peoples were exposed to fatal diseases, raped, enslaved and murdered via the influx of European immigrants; but municipalities and states are now renaming the holiday to better reflect those who were most affected: Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Local resident Alan Salazar, Chumash of a Tataviam village that had been based where Magic Mountain is now, said that in 2015 the city of San Fernando, where the Tataviam tribe had flourished, was the first Southern California city to recognize indigenous people in place of Columbus Day. Just a few weeks ago, L.A. City Council and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day officially by 2019.
While there was some pushback for an Italian recognition day as Columbus’ role is now being acknowledged differently via the federal holiday standard, there was no clear anger about the name change, at least not on the West Coast. The lack of uproar should signal local elected officials at the city and county levels that this should be a cause worthy of pursuing and without heated consequences — so far it’s not apparent that any such representatives have addressed this “holiday” issue. Though this name and honor change is significant, being honest about the brutal history of colonization is at the top of mind for both Salazar and local Chumash leader Mati Waiya.
While Salazar said that there has been some movement, especially at the elementary school level locally, to reflect the truth of the tormented past, Waiya and Salazar are both in agreement that making Father Junipero Serra into a saint was “extremely difficult for most California Indians,” as Salazar said. Though Roman Catholic Church officials revere Serra, Native Americans see Serra as one who enslaved and murdered their people. Waiya also noted that the green patina bells along Highway 101 are yet another insult to Native Americans; the bells represent the 600-mile trek of Camino Real, aka the Royal Road to establish missions along the coast and led to the slaughter of 90 percent of Native Americans at that time. Waiya said that the bells in honor of Camino Real are akin to swastikas to Jewish people. Waiya said that the response to concern over honoring people who and events that caused so much destruction is simply, “It was a long time ago. Forget about it.” “We can’t forget about it,” he said.
Despite the anguish that Salazar and Waiya so clearly feel for the suffering of their ancestors, they both want healing through honest and accurate historical accounts and through recognizing that those whom so many honor charged a high price to those already here. But they value the process of healing together, regardless of descent. We agree.
Though Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day is now in our rearview mirror, there is no time like the present to tell history the way it really was. We hope that the momentum to be truthful about the past will continue and even gain in velocity. We have hidden the tortured past long enough and made too many suffer in silence. Now is the time for honesty.
Governor Brown has signed Assembly Bill 738, authored by Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara). AB 738 provides for the development of a model curriculum in Native American studies for schools to integrate into lesson plans in grades 9 through 12.
“AB 738 is about communities telling their own stories that can be passed on to future generations,” said Limón. “A school curriculum that draws upon and reflects the history of all students, especially underrepresented students, is critical in providing a positive, engaging and meaningful experience in the classroom.”
The model curriculum will be designed with input from tribes to preserve Native American culture and history, and educate all students on its importance. Schools would be encouraged to offer a course in Native American studies based on the model curriculum. California has the largest Native American population in the United States and the third largest American Indian student population.
“This is a proud day for our tribe and Native Americans throughout the state of the California. The passage of this bill means that students will have an opportunity to learn about our history, our journey, our sovereignty and our culture through a curriculum that will be developed with vital input and oversight from Native American tribes. We would like to thank both state Assemblymember Monique Limon for her work on this bill and Governor Brown for making this dream a reality,” said Tribal Chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Kenneth Kahn.
AB 738 was signed on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 9, 2017, and will become law on January 1, 2018.