PIPE counters Columbus Day with indigenous history awareness

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A sign at one of three areas on campus reclaimed by Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE) to raise awareness on Columbus Day. Photo by Naomi Guttman ’16

A sign at one of three areas on campus reclaimed by Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE) to raise awareness on Columbus Day. Photo by Naomi Guttman ’16
A sign at one of three areas on campus reclaimed by Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE) to raise awareness on Columbus Day. Photo by Naomi Guttman ’16

Update: An earlier version of this article falsely credited Elisa Lee ’15 as Lisa Lee and used the gender pronoun “her” in reference to Lee, who prefers not to use gender pronouns.

Taking advantage of the day off, many prospective students visited Macalester this past Columbus Day. Two signs marking the occasions greeted those entering at the corner of Grand Avenue and Macalester Street. The signs asked two questions: “Do you benefit from ignoring Indigenous histories?” and “Why were you not taught this history?”

The signs were part of an on-campus demonstration by Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE). They aimed to re-direct celebration of Columbus Day to a Day of Indigenous Vision, Education, Reclamation and Thought (DIVERT), joining a tradition of Native American activism centered on the national holiday.

Three areas on campus—a triangular patch of Old Main Lawn, the flagpole and a section of the path leading from the library to the Leonard Center—were blocked off with yellow caution tape and signs reading: “This land has been reclaimed by PIPE and its allies on behalf of indigenous people.” The stake of one of the signs near the Leonard Center was found broken. It is unclear whether it was broken intentionally.

Other signs posed questions on the subject of indigenous history and representation. One such sign, posted in front of Weyerhaeuser Hall, read “Where are my non-white leaders?” Though signs posted on campus are usually cleared through the reservations office, PIPE did not seek permission.

“I thought it would defeat the purpose if we did,” said Abaki Beck ’15, a co-chair of PIPE with heritage in the Blackfoot Nation.

According to Beck, some students that asked her about the signs did not know it was Columbus Day. Macalester does not cancel classes for the day and there are no events on campus celebrating the Italian explorer. Still, Beck does not see the lack of a presence on campus as a condemnation of the holiday.

“Even though it’s not celebrated at Macalester,” Beck said, “It’s not recognized as a bad thing at Macalester.”

According to The Mac Weekly archives, PIPE held an annual bonfire on Columbus Day in the early 1990s and staged a DIVERT event on campus two years ago.

The indigenous movement against the holiday also gained national and international prominence in the early 1990s. Several states and municipalities no longer observe the day, including South Dakota and Berkeley, California.

Beck said her motivation comes from the change Columbus represents more than his personal actions. She cited the destruction European colonialism brought to Native American communities and the 200-year slave trade of indigenous people in the Caribbean following Columbus’ arrival in 1492. To her, the national holiday is a celebration of that history.

“I think it’s kind of disgusting,” Beck said.

Though Beck focuses on broader historical changes, she does not hold the man himself in high regard.

“He killed a lot of people,” Beck said. “He raped a lot of people; he started a huge sex trade as well. It’s not like he’s some innocent guy who stumbled upon this island.”

Columbus Day is also a celebration of the heritage of Italian immigrants, according to information from the Sons of Italy. Beck recognizes this aspect of the holiday, but disagrees with connecting the celebration to the memory of someone viewed by many Native Americans and historians as a murderer.

“Of all the Italians in history they could have chosen someone better than Christopher Columbus,” Beck said. “In my personal opinion.”

Non-Native American students have also become involved in PIPE. Elisa Lee ’15 joined the group through friendship with Beck and learned more about the history of Native American activism through American Studies courses.

“My role as an ally is not to take over PIPE but to support them in any way that I can,” Lee said, “Whether that is to make posters or put stakes in the ground.”

Though the DIVERT posters and stakes are one step to greater awareness, Beck said that the “holidays and heroes” model of recognizing indigenous history can only do so much.

“People don’t even think about where they’re walking,” she said.

Beck hopes that consciousness of Native American history will become commonplace in the future but said that there is a lot of ground to cover before reaching that goal.

“Even at liberal Macalester, people are ignorant,” she said, “and [they] realize they’re ignorant but don’t do anything about it.”

Continuing towards this goal of education, PIPE has a series of events planned to observe Native American Heritage Month this November. They are bringing University of Minnesota American Studies professor Brenda Child to campus to discuss her book on Ojibwe women as agents of social change on November 9. They are also holding informal events like an “In the Kitchen With…” night in the Cultural House and a craft night.

Beck said it is important to recognize Native American communities in the present, as well as historically.

“The people who still exist are incredibly resilient and incredibly strong,” Beck said.