A century after Mass. first recognized Columbus Day as a legal holiday, about 30 students gathered outside of Matthews Hall last night for a candlelight vigil honoring “Dia de La Resistencia Indigena” (Day of Indigenous Resistance), a part of broader efforts calling for the re-thinking of Columbus Day and the historical origins of the United States.
Held near the former site of Harvard’s Indian College, the vigil offered Native American and non-Native American students alike the opportunity to reflect on their roots and the colonial history of the Americas, said Tiffany L. Smalley ’11, president of Native Americans at Harvard College, which sponsored the event.
By celebrating Dia de La Resistencia Indigena—a Venezuelan holiday that honors indigenous peoples and commemorates their struggles against colonization—the club sought to raise awareness of these issues, also displaying large red posters around campus that highlighted campaigns by historical figures against Native Americans.
“A lot of people aren’t realizing what Columbus has left behind in his legacy,” said Smalley, a member of the Wampanoag tribe. “To us, Columbus Day is the celebration of the figure whose arrival marks the beginning of a 500-year period of genocide, racism, and quite frankly, terrorism, on this land.”
This candlelight vigil comes after a themed party held by Sigma Chi on Friday night drew criticism from many members of Native Americans at Harvard College. A member of the Sigma Chi leadership told The Crimson that the event was called “Brave New World,” but the theme has been characterized by other students as “Conquistabros and Navajos.”
“It’s always very disappointing to see native cultures lumped into one group that you can dress up,” said Tia M. Ray ’12, vice president of Native Americans at Harvard College and a member of the Navajo tribe, explaining how she felt that the event made a “mockery” out of her tribe.
A member of Sigma Chi said that the event was not intended to offend anyone, and the controversy has prompted discussion within the organization on planning future events.
Despite the solemnity of the vigil, many members of Native Americans at Harvard College said they were excited for the future since the College had made major improvements in recognizing the history of Native Americans, citing as examples the anthropology course “Archaeology of Harvard Yard” and the construction of a traditional Wampanoag dwelling last spring in honor of the 360th anniversary of the Harvard Charter of 1650, which dedicated the College “to the education of English & Indian youth of this Country in knowledge.”
During a period of reflection, Lange P. Luntao ’12—who is not Native American—said he viewed the event as an opportunity for “sharing a different side of American heritage that needs to be recognized more readily in society.”
The club plans to propose that the College administration rescind the University’s recognition of the holiday and replace it with a celebration of indigenous people or a Fall Break, as Brown University did in 2009.
“Clearly it’s about educating people about Columbus and colonization in a productive way,” Ray said.
“We want to turn this into a positive day,” Smalley said. “We don’t want this to be something we are continuously sad about.”