Feb 10, 2023 • Annie Cao
October 10th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day — a day with a lot of tragic history that now honors the culture and histories of the Native American people. In 1990, South Dakota was the first state to recognize Native Americans’ Day. Today, more than a dozen states and over 100 cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2021, President Biden became the first U.S. president to issue a proclamation that the second Monday of October be recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Christopher Columbus is widely known as the European explorer who “discovered” the Americas and his feats have been celebrated for hundreds of years. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day as a national holiday. However, for Native Americans, this day is an example of “whitewashed” American history and a reminder of over 500 years of colonial oppression. Columbus and his peoples’ arrival were responsible for forcibly taking away land from people that already lived there and committing a violent genocide against the Native American people. In recent decades, Columbus’ life and accomplishments have faced criticism from academics and the general public, leading to a movement to change the holiday to honor Native Americans.
Columbus Day is currently still a federal holiday for government workers and continues to represent the mistreatment against Italian Americans. However, although Italian Americans regard this day as a way to celebrate their heritage, there are also those who support the shift to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Climate change has affected Indigenous communities and disrupted food systems. As traditional food providers, women have had to step up and adapt to these environmental changes.
Agnes Leina grew up in Baragoi in Northern Kenya. As part of the Turkana tribe, she and other girls were responsible for fetching water from the river. Today, the rivers near her town have completely dried up. When Leina got her first job, she purchased a tank to store water for her mother and the community.
Myrna Cunningham is an activist and the first female doctor in the Miskito community on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. She noticed that unpredictable food production and increased hurricanes and floods were consequences of climate change.
Joan Carling is a part of the Kankanaey Indigenous peoples in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines. Here, Carling says she has seen more frequent and intense monsoons and landslides that have displaced entire communities.
Because of these environmental shifts, Indigenous people have started to lose their sacred connection to their land. Instead of wanting to protect and preserve the land, they have started to see their natural resources as commodities and some have moved to more urban areas. Thankfully, there are women-led organizations that are taking on projects to fight against the effects of climate change. Some examples of these projects are planting trees along rivers, using pine needles to reforest the area, setting up seed banks and reviving Indigenous seeds, and investing in rain-harvest systems.
“Women take care of society — from their family to the whole society. For them to take care of society, they have to take care of nature.” - Agnes Leina
According to the United Nations, Indigenous people make up 5% of the world population, but care for approximately 22% of the Earth’s surface and protect about 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. Indigenous people in the Arctic are particularly sensitive to climate change — they’re usually the first to experience environmental shifts and pollution from fossil fuels or other man-made causes. Because of their ancestral knowledge about the land, Indigenous people have been able to explain climatic changes in detail. However, Western scientists have said that they’ve struggled to work with Indigenous people and rely on their knowledge because of a bias against information that can’t be scientifically measured.
Recently, a paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment called “Contributions and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples to the study of mercury in the Arctic” shows that Indigenous people in the Arctic have played a significant role in researching mercury pollution. In fact, there were over 40 scientific projects conducted in several countries where knowledge from Indigenous people added to the understanding of mercury contamination in the Arctic.
Although there’s still progress to be made in the science community, Magali Houde, a co-author of the paper and Ph.D. research scientist, is hopeful that the mentality towards working with Indigenous people on scientific research will change. According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), environmental shifts such as global warming are continuing to change the Arctic region, so collaborations between Indigenous people and scientists are becoming more important.