The college officially recognized the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time in its history on Oct. 14. The move was made to “honor the histories, cultures and contributions of Native peoples,” according to a statement from President Biddy Martin.
Columbus Day, a holiday denoting the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Americas in 1492, has been variably celebrated since the late 18th century and was standardized first as a nationally-recognized holiday in 1937 and later as a federal holiday — on which government offices close — in 1968. Critics of the holiday — especially those of Native descent — point out that it fails to acknowledge Columbus’ role in the colonization of the Americas, which saw the exploitation, mass murder and torture of indigenous peoples.
This has prompted regions of the country, including the Town of Amherst in 2016, to adopt an alternative day of remembrance that honors the cultures and historical contributions of indigenous peoples, known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “Let us look historical reality in the eye and acknowledge the literal and figurative erasures of Native Americans,” Martin wrote in her statement.
The college isn’t the first to adopt the alternative day of remembrance. Other higher education institutions around the nation — Harvard and Brown included — have officially recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “When a lot of colleges think about community, they think about other higher education institutions,” Professor of American Studies Kiara Vigil said. “Amherst, like many other schools, thinks of itself as a part of a broader community of scholars, undergraduate students and etc., so they look at what’s happening out there in the community of schools when it comes to something like Indigeneous Peoples’ Day.”
Student activism and conversations between administrators, faculty and students led the effort to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Part of the shift may also stem from the college becoming more receptive to social change, “especially after the Amherst Uprising in 2015,” said Sarah Montoya ’21, co-president of the Indigenous and Native Citizens Association (INCA).
Lisa Brooks, professor of English and American studies, highlighted the work of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in pushing for the official recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which she said is “just one small step in a larger process.”
“We didn’t have that office before,” Brooks said. “That has been a really important place where students can come … and talk to faculty like Professor Vigil and me, and they can talk to other leaders in the administration so that they can help make that conversation happen.”
Since the hiring of Native faculty members Brooks and Vigil — the first-ever known Native American faculty members at the college — the college has responded to student efforts to establish a curriculum in Native studies.
Brooks and Vigil have also stepped outside of the classroom to extend support to Native peoples. In 2012, Brooks and Vigil mentored and supported two Native American students at the college with the creation of INCA. The association has grown in strength and number with continued support from Brooks and Vigil.
Today, INCA is a space of gathering for indigenous students. The group often discusses issues pertaining to Native people and Native rights, participate in various events across the five colleges and help recruit indigenous students interested in coming to Amherst. “Thinking about how far it has come since I’ve started here, there were about three students involved with INCA, and maybe a couple of more outside of INCA, and now it’s really grown,” Montoya said.
The Office of Admission has also collaborated with the two professors to better recruit Native students and support them at the college.
“There has been an incredible shift from Amherst since 2012,” Vigil said. “The admissions department began to ask, ‘How do we recruit Native students? How do we support them?’ Our advice was ‘Well, you have to consider the environment. To what degree will they feel welcome and supported?’ Especially first-gen students … One of the most important things we can do now is support INCA.”
The students themselves, who have questioned the values of the college and led movements to shift from the mascot of Lord Jeffery Amherst — infamous for supporting the use of biological warfare against indigenous peoples — to the mammoth, have also played a role in holding the administration accountable. As part of the effort to increase the enrollment of Native American students, the Office of Admission hosts an Early Overnight for Native Students (EONS) program is an extension of the Diversity Open House to allow prospective Native American students to meet with Native community members and interact with the college’s Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Collection of Native American Literature, housed in Archives and Special Collections.
With Indigenous Peoples’ Day now recognized by the college, various members of the community are hopeful change will continue. “My ultimate hope is that being Native, and [that] indigenous issues, aren’t going to seem as sidelined … I hope that Amherst continues to be a welcoming school and not just accepting Native American students but truly letting them flourish,” Montoya said. The college community has come a long way “in the way that we grapple with the complexity and the contraction that is history,” Vigil added.
The work, however, does not stop here. “I feel really isolated on this campus,” INCA Vice President Alexis Scalese ’22 said. “There are a lot of assumptions on this campus that Native students do not exist or are [not] present … We deserve support in expressing ourselves and having access to the same things that other students have access to.”