Oct. 10-13 declared Indigenous People’s Week

By Rebecca Farias | Herald Reporter

In recent years, the controversy of celebrating “Columbus Day” has been a key issue both in the media and on campus, with many people asking if the nation should be honoring Christopher Columbus.

With reference to recent decisions proffered by the Student and Faculty Senate committees in favor of renaming the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day, President Donald J. Farish wrote in an all-student email, “The two Senates hoped to provide some balance in how we recognize the ‘discovery’ of America by having RWU declare an ‘Indigenous People’s Day,’ and to so note the day on the university calendar.”

Farish stated in his email, “Columbus Day is not a particularly good choice for Indigenous People’s Day because it is a holiday and classes are not in session. Accordingly, at least for this year, I am declaring the balance of the week that begins with Columbus Day—that is, Tuesday, October 10th, through Friday, October 13th—to be ‘Indigenous People’s Week.’”

At the moment, it is not clear whether Indigenous People’s Week will be held in future years, or if Columbus Day will be kept on the university calendar.

“I was surprised, honestly,” sophomore Kat Vincente, the president of the Multicultural Student Union (MSU), said in regards to the email. “I was on the steering committee for changing the day ‘Columbus Day’ to Indigenous People’s Day, and after leaving the meeting, President Farish told the committee that the name ‘Columbus’ would be completely dropped. All of us left the meeting happy knowing that after the 2-3 years students and faculty have been pushing for this change, it will finally be occurring.”

When asked why so many Americans (and universities) display a reluctance to change the name of this “traditional” holiday, June Speakman, the chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations as well as a member of Faculty Senate, said that Columbus Day, as a national holiday, does not celebrate Columbus as some kind of moral “hero.”

“The United States has a long tradition of celebrating this day in honor of someone who supposedly ‘discovered America,’” Speakman continued. “Despite the historical inaccuracy of that, it is important to certain communities in the nation.”

Speakman concluded that she values holidays which unite the community rather than those with the kind of “political weight” that tear people apart.

“This is a tough problem that confronts the U.S. as a nation—how to celebrate our shared heritage, history, and values, without honoring people and events that we have come to see as problematic in terms of those values. A very difficult issue.”

Dr. Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, an Assistant Professor of History as well as a vocal leader of the Indigenous People’s Day Committee, also shared mixed feelings about the decision.

“I expected it to go differently,” Carrington-Farmer said, adding that she questions President Farish’s argument that the actual date of Columbus Day is not a suitable fit for Indigenous People’s Day.

“There is obvious knowledge about Columbus that is available to all, and everyone knows why the holiday is problematic in general,” Carrington-Farmer said. “This is not taking enough of a stand. The week-long programming is fine, but the date itself is symbolic.”

“The only other person on the Roger Williams University calendar named after a person is Martin Luther King Jr.,” Carrington-Farmer continued.

Vicente added, “By changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, it will represent the start of accurately representing history and teaching people about history. Native Americans are the reason that we are here to this day.”

Carrington-Farmer also spoke in terms of the university’s namesake, Roger Williams, and the idea that changing the name to Indigenous People’s Day would better reflect his legacy and uphold his commitment to social equity. “We have to ask ourselves, what is Columbus’ contribution to Bristol, to this land, and to the Roger Williams community?”

Carrington-Farmer said that Williams himself engaged in “mostly positive” relations with the Native Americans. He purchased the territory now known as Providence from two Narragansett leaders, Canonicus and Miantonomi, rather than seizing it himself, and took a firm stance against forced religious conversion with a now-famous quote: “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

However, Carrington-Farmer was also quick to point out that Williams sold multiple Native captives into slavery following the conclusion of King Phillip’s War, stating, “His signature was first on the letter that enslaved them. Isn’t it extra important that we reconcile these two sides of Roger?”

Native Americans were protected under Rhode Island’s original charter. They saved Williams’ life when he arrived, starving and cold, in the land that would become Providence.

The controversy has impacted the local community outside the RWU campus. WPRI Eyewitness News reported that vandals splashed red paint on a Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Square, Providence, on Oct. 11. Bystanders praised the push for recognition of Indigenous People’s Day as “bold,” but rejected this illegal method of communication.

“We cannot ignore the fact that we are on Native American land and, more specifically, this campus stands on Wampanoag land,” Vicente said. “I think the least we can do for the Native American community is [hold] a day to celebrate their culture and role in American history.”

“We want to be on the right side of history,” Carrington-Farmer concluded.

CORRECTION: An older version of this story misstated that Professor Charlotte Carrington-Farmer said Roger Williams purchased Rhode Island from Pokanoket leaders and sold two Native captives into slavery following the conclusion of the Pequot Wars.

Carrington-Farmer said that Roger Williams purchased Providence from two Narragansett leaders, Canonicus and Miantonomi, and sold multiple Native captives into slavery following the conclusion of King Philip’s War.