For most of us, the second Monday in October has been celebrated as Columbus Day, a time when banks and post offices are closed, and we think, however briefly, about Columbus’ discovery of America. History, however, has broadened our understanding of the negative repercussions of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria’s arrival to a continent already populated with bustling, sophisticated cultures and economies of its own. So what has been known as Columbus Day is more and more recognized as Indigenous Peoples Day in honor of the Americas’ established inhabitants whose lives would be upended and whose populations decimated by the arrival of Europeans.
South Dakota was the first state to transform Columbus Day into a time to honor the heritage of the hundreds of cultures that once flourished here. In Oregon, the second Monday in October was officially designated Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017 to “recognize the many contributions made to our communities through indigenous peoples.”
Archeologists’ and anthropologists’ estimates of the number of native inhabitants of the Americas in 1491 vary from James Mooney’s 1.1 million to Henry F. Dobyn’s newer, somewhat controversial, but increasingly accepted, 112 million—a greater population than Europe at the time. When the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto moved through the Mississippi Valley in 1539, his expedition records noted a thickly settled land “very well peopled with large towns.” The tragic loss of 90 to 96 percent of the indigenous population, estimated by Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeologist who specializes in indigenous population numbers came not so much from conflict as from the unintentional coast-to-coast spread of diseases, from smallpox and measles to viral hepatitis that swept repeatedly through indigenous populations. This carnage occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries, long before Lewis and Clark, manifest destiny, and Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears, and was unintentional. But it also created the illusion that this was a pristine and uninhabited continent, with forests, grasslands, and waters untouched and untrammeled by humanity.
We are learning that the sophisticated peoples who lived here long before the arrival of Europeans managed their landscapes and resources assiduously. They set fires to the buffalo prairies in the fall. They kept forest floors open and rich in grassy forage with similar burns from New England to the Northwest. They harvested game, but also managed the numbers. And generally, they did this sustainably. What European newcomers saw as wilderness was the heritage of a carefully managed, and often cultivated North American landscape.
So it is right to honor this heritage with an Indigenous Peoples Day. And to learn from it. Every time we eat a tomato, chomp on an ear of corn, or dive into a baked potato, we are celebrating the peoples who brought us those foods. And now, as we carefully reintroduce fire into a landscape that had adapted to fire for millennia before us, we are honoring them again.