1. Background
  2. Native Americans

We Begin with Acknowledgement

By Hannah Graf Evans, October 15, 2015


Columbus Day overlooks – even endorses – painful history, ignores the trauma still present in Native communities, and minimizes the important contributions made by indigenous peoples throughout this continent’s history.

We begin by acknowledging, with humility, that the land where we sit and stand today borders the territory of the Nacotchtank people, for whom the Anacostia River is named. The Nacotchtank lived in a thriving, fortified settlement based on agriculture, hunting, and trade. As European colonists moved in, bringing with them European diseases, the Nacotchtank moved briefly to Anacostine Island, which is now Theodore Roosevelt Island. The Nacotchtank moved north and eventually joined the Piscataway Tribe in Maryland, whose population was similarly devastated by disease and war with the Iroquois Confederacy. Many Nacotchtank ended up in Canada, but some remained in Maryland with the Piscataway Indian Tribe.

We honor Chief Turkey Tayac, a Piscataway Indian leader and 20th-century civil rights activist allied with the American Indian Movement, who led the drive to allow American Indians to self-identify. After an arduous 16-year campaign and denials by two previous governors, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley finally granted state recognition to all three Piscataway tribes in Maryland in 2012. The tribes are still not federally recognized.

Let us be aware that we occupy their homeland, that their presence is imbued in this land, these rivers, islands, and coastal plains.

The occasion for the above paragraph was a workshop on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery led by Friend Paula Palmer of Boulder Friends Meeting. For many of us the doctrine was a mere footnote in our high school history texts, and a teaching that many thought was long gone from the modern world. FCNL staff and the Washington Interreligious Staff Community participated last October, sharing in this heart-changing experience.

The history of the indigenous populations around our present day capital is not privileged in the telling of the national narrative, and almost impossible to find.

We stood in a circle. We heard readings from historical figures –some of them were Christian religious leaders from the 15th and 16th century. From time to time, we paused in silence to reflect on the readings and to remember the people who had died by the direct orders of popes, governors, and military leaders.

The halls of the congressional office buildings are quiet today, but they are not quiet in contemplation. While the federal government is closed observing Columbus Day; we at FCNL came to work as usual – though this day is far from usual.

Today embodies centuries of non-acknowledgement of indigenous peoples of this continent, attributing its discovery and settlement to a man who personifies the subjugation, devastation, and annihilation of more than 90% of indigenous communities. The three-day “holiday” overlooks – even endorses – this painful history, ignores the trauma still present in Native communities, and minimizes the important contributions made by indigenous peoples throughout this continent’s history.

Our task as facilitators of the workshop was to write this paragraph acknowledging the people who had occupied the land before European settlement; I did not know who they were.

As we researched, we found that information was difficult to come across. National Parks in the area made partial nods to former indigenous inhabitants, but overall focused on the Founding Fathers and post-settlement Washington, D.C. The history of the indigenous populations around our present day capital is not privileged in the telling of the national narrative, and almost impossible to find.

Columbus Day overlooks – even endorses – painful history, ignores the trauma still present in Native communities, and minimizes the important contributions made by indigenous peoples throughout this continent’s history.

For centuries, indigenous cultures have been erased, forgotten, or devalued through naming and re-naming; through the privileging of European survival and dismissal of Indigenous resilience. Just as the Anacostine Island was renamed Theodore Roosevelt Island, other sites have been officially named with the settlers’ story. European settlers even changed Native names to European – often biblical – names, citing that traditional names were too difficult to remember and were antithetical to civilized peoples.

Just this August, the Department of the Interior took important steps to acknowledge the long history of indigenous peoples in Alaska by officially re-naming the tallest peak in the United States. The mountain is referred to locally by a centuries-old Koyukon Athabascan name, Denali and is sacred to many Alaska Natives. However, on national maps the mountain is labeled as Mt. McKinley after a gold prospector named it as an endorsement of the then presidential candidate William McKinley, who had never set foot in Alaska. The Alaska state legislature formally requested to re-name the mountain Denali in 1975; 40 years later the Department of Interior complied.

Across the country, a growing number of cities and states are ceasing to observe Columbus Day – re-claiming the day to instead acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of indigenous communities. South Dakota started observing Native American Day instead in 1990, and in 1992 Berkeley, California instituted Indigenous People’s Day. In the past two years more cities have joined; Albuquerque, Pittsburgh, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland (OR), and Olympia all recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day.

It is a first step, not a final one. First, we must join together with Indigenous communities in acknowledging our true shared history, including honoring Indigenous contributions, sorrows, and names. Only then can we all move closer to true justice.

Hannah Graf Evans

  • Legislative Representative, Immigration and Refugee Policy

Hannah Graf Evans lobbies for compassionate immigration policies. Our immigration system should empower immigrants and the American communities to which they belong, lift up the voices of border communities, and ensure adequate protections for refugees, asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking. Hannah co-chairs the steering committee of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, made up of over 45 faith-based organizations.