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Words You'll Hear: Indigenous Peoples Day


And now it's time for Words You'll Hear. That's where we look ahead to news of the coming week by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. Today, our words are Indigenous Peoples Day. That's what some jurisdictions and institutions will be celebrating tomorrow instead of Columbus Day. Earlier this month, Los Angeles County joined Seattle, Denver, Albuquerque and a number of other cities around the country in making the choice to replace Columbus Day celebrations with Indigenous Peoples Day.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Kevin Gover. He is the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington, D.C. Kevin Gover, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KEVIN GOVER: Of course.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit, if you would, about how - what was the thought behind Indigenous Peoples Day? What can you tell us about how this got started?

GOVER: You know, it actually started quite a time ago. As you move further west in the U.S., there's less and less connection to Columbus and the sense that he is in some way the founder of their state. Back in the '90s, the state of South Dakota no longer acknowledge Columbus Day and instead did Native American Day, I believe they call it. There was a regeneration of interest in the past, oh, three or four years, where all the cities you just named began to change it to Indigenous Peoples Day.

MARTIN: So one of the things that you do is to push people to re-examine the way history has been told and memorialized. And I think people will recognize, you know, very similar strains of the debate that a lot of places are having over Confederate monuments. So why do you think it's important to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day?

GOVER: Well, what's important is that we understand our history. We can't understand who we are unless we know where we came from. And the problem with the monuments and Columbus statues and other things is that it's an effort, in essence, to whitewash history. Confederate monuments really suggest that the uprising against the United States was a noble thing in some way, when, in fact, it was a war made in defense of slavery. It was a rebellion.

Similarly, the honoring of Columbus is to whitewash his record. Certainly it's true he was quite the sailor. But what is not true is that his conduct was in some way heroic, particularly after encountering the indigenous people of the Caribbean. Within a decade, Columbus and his men and his successors had basically wiped out the people of the Caribbean. They're not extinct. They weren't able to kill them all, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

MARTIN: You know, this debate - for people who are more familiar with the Confederate statues debate, this is very similar in the sense that there are also people who are pushing back against the changing the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day, saying that it's not about what he did wrong, it's that - it's a celebration of Italian heritage, the contributions of Italian-Americans to the American story.

GOVER: Yeah. And I don't have any problem with that. I think the Italian-American story is quite a remarkable one. They just chose - in a big way, they chose the wrong guy to be the symbol of Italian-American heritage. And, you know, I should say I'm not in a place where I would attempt to dictate to any community what they should do with the monuments in their community. What I would say is if you're going to have them, tell the truth. I heard somebody much smarter than I say that heritage is history with all the bad stuff taken out. But let's not pretend it's history. Let's acknowledge that history was being whitewashed when we weren't telling the truth to ourselves about ourselves and try to do better going forward.

MARTIN: Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. Kevin Gover, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GOVER: You're welcome, Michel. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREKITES' "AUTUMN STORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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