President Joe Biden’s recent proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day marks Oct. 11 as an official national holiday to celebrate Indigenous people. Though this is a step toward opening up a conversation on the efforts of Indigenous people throughout history, it still does not address the current struggles of Indigenous communities in North America. To truly acknowledge Indigenous people and their diverse cultures, Biden and the nation need to reckon with the past and better support indigenous communities through government legislation and programs rather than just creating a national holiday.
It’s imperative that we acknowledge the Indigenous activists across the country who have fought for the implementation of this holiday on a national level. It is equally important to address the issues impacting Indigenous households everyday, such as high rates of poverty, lack of academic resources for Indigenous youth, unhealthy living conditions, environmental racism, cultural appropriation, violence against women, those who identify as Two-spirit and much more.
According to data from Poverty USA in 2018, Indigenous Americans experienced the highest rates of poverty at 25.4%. Around one in 10 Indigenous Americans do not have access to clean water. The idea that Indigenous Americans receive “free handouts” from the government such as monthly checks or free housing simply for being Indigenous is far from the truth. When cultural assumptions such as these are widespread across the nation it diminishes and distracts from the problems Indigenous communities face.
Environmental racism is also a contributing factor to the issues Indigenous communities face on a daily basis. Whether it’s the Dakota Access Pipeline or the Agua Caliente case, Indigenous communities have had their native land and environment disrupted for the sake of corporate profits. These lands hold sacred and cultural significance for their communities, and corporations exploiting them to their advantage is insulting to the history and importance of their land and culture.
Another crucial issue impacting Indigenous communities has to do with their cultural perceptions throughout history. Education related to Indigenous cultures in America has been one-sided and simply the bare minimum. In history classes, most Americans are taught only a handful of significant Indigenous American events; however, most of these are focused on Indigenous peoples’ suffering instead of their contributions to American society and progress throughout history. Not to mention that many Indigenous students in school feel underrepresented, unwelcome and are unable to benefit from the necessary academic resources to succeed. Misrepresentation in the media along with the increase in cultural appropriation have also contributed to a skewed perception of the average Indigenous American.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Womxn, Girls, and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S) movement has brought attention to a severe issue impacting women and gender non-conforming Indigenous people. According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), “more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime.” With widespread violence and movements calling for justice, the government needs to step in with solutions. Fortunately, Biden took initiative in May 2021, proclaiming a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day as well as prioritizing this issue by working directly with tribal nations.
While it’s important to shed light on the issues they face, it is also important to focus on how they have shaped America’s culture and identity. Indigenous Americans have contributed to American history in many ways, whether it’s in agriculture, medicine, technology, warfare and more. We received many of our food practices from Indigenous communities. We continue to learn from Indigenous communities on how to respect our environment and fight for environmental justice.
We shouldn’t forget the contributions of Indigenous Americans throughout our history and we shouldn’t dismiss this important holiday; however, we all need to dig deeper and learn about the diverse histories and cultures of Indigenous tribes. Talk to Indigenous people and activists. Amplify their voices and advocate for indigenious-focused issues. Biden has made some steps forward in representing Indigenous peoples, but there’s still a long way to go.
Camelia Heins is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.