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Declaring Indigenous People’s Day in Michigan is a good start, but it’s not enough

October 14, 2019

(Editor’s note: I am writing as someone who is a beneficiary of Settler Colonialism and addressing what the State of Michigan did with regards to their declaration. I do not want to downplay how this declaration is viewed by indigenous people, as their views on this matter are theirs.)

Recently it was announced that Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, declared October 14, 2019 as Indigenous People’s Day.

Many non-indigenous people have already declared this to be a great victory of Michigan and a demonstration of equity and inclusion. It is a good start………but a whole lot more needs to happen. In fact, even some of the language within the declaration is problematic, so lets take a look at some of that language.

The second paragraph of the declaration states:

WHEREAS, in 1990, representatives from 120 Indigenous Nations at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance unanimously passed a resolution to transform Columbus Day into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about pre-existing indigenous cultures that have survived an often violent colonization process and continue to exist and thrive in present day America; and,

This part of the declaration is not so much problematic, but it does omit something. The European invasion of Turtle Island would more honestly be named as Settler Colonialism. According to Native scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, there is a major difference between colonialism and settler colonialism.

Settler colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.

In the fourth and sixth paragraphs of the declaration, it acknowledges the Native Nations that are in the area now currently occupied by the State of Michigan.

WHEREAS, the state of Michigan recognizes the presence of the three major groups in our state today, the Chippewa (Ojibwe), Ottawa (Odawa), and Potawatomi (Bodéwadmik), who have lived upon this land since time immemorial, and values the progress our society has accomplished through Native American thought and culture; and,

WHEREAS, the resolution states that Indigenous Peoples Day shall be used to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples on this land, and to celebrate the thriving cultures and values that the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and other indigenous peoples contribute to society; and,

Acknowledging the indigenous nations that exist in what is called Michigan is important, but there is no reference in the declaration that names them as nations. The US government entered into treaties with each of the three Native Nations that now exist within Michigan, since governments can only enter into treaties with other sovereign nations. The Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi are not just cultures and people’s, they are sovereign people, a critical point that we can never forget.

In the seventh paragraph of the declaration it says that we should celebrate indigenous contributions:

WHEREAS, on this second Monday of October, we should honor the historic, cultural, and contemporary significance of Indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands that also became known as the Americas and celebrate their contributions to communities throughout Michigan, the United States, and all over the world;

Ok, sure, we can acknowledge contributions, but framing it this way omits all of the harm. Any declaration that comes from settler colonial powers needs to acknowledge the harm committed by White Settlers. Failure to acknowledge genocidal policies not only erases the brutality, it is designed to make those of us who benefit from Settler Colonialism fell better about ourselves. If we were honest, we would acknowledge the theft of land, the displacement of whole native communities, the forced removal of children who were put into boarding schools, the ongoing impact that mining and the oil pipelines has had on Native communities, plus the fact that indigenous people, in what is now called Michigan, are some of the poorest people in the state.

For the State of Michigan to declare Indigenous People’s Day is a good start, but it is not enough. We have to own this history of Settler Colonialism and we have to work towards dismantling it. Those of us who are the beneficiaries of Settler Colonialism have to listen to what it is that the Native Nations that live on the land currently occupied by the State of Michigan, we have to listen to what it is that they want. One major thing would be to shut down Line 5 in Michigan, something that the Governor said she would do. All the declarations in the world don’t mean anything unless their is direct action that primarily benefits and improves the lives of indigenous people.

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