Native students demonstrate for Indigenous People’s Day

University of Wyoming student Jasmyne Cooper, center. joins UW student Jaida Cooper, left, and Juwan Willow of the Northern Arapaho Tribe during Monday's protest against Columbus Day at Simpson Plaza on the UW campus. UW student organization Keepers of the Fire collaborated with the Native American Education Research and Cultural Center for the event that called for Columbus Day to be designated Indigenous Peoples Day going forward. (Photo by Joel Funk, Laramie Boomerang)

LARAMIE — Keepers of the Fire, a UW student organization, held a demonstration on campus Monday in support of native peoples and the movement to abolish Columbus Day — and to celebrate instead Indigenous People’s Day.

“Today we seek recognition that our people fought centuries, for generation after generation,” Juwan Willow of the Arapahoe Nation, said. “Equality must be fought for like that, because it is not won in a single generation — and we must not slide back into the old practices of yesterday.”

Students of indigenous ancestries stepped forward to speak greetings in their native languages and to share their native names and meanings, as opposed to their “government names.”

Willow, UW student and Keeper of the Fire’s treasurer, said these names are given to native people to guide them in life and are of deep significance, especially when spoken in their original language rather than translated into English. His own name, Looking For Songs, is properly spoken in Arapahoe. Some receive their names at birth, while others receive them from tribal elders later in life. Traditionally, a person’s name may change or they may have more than one, commemorating their achievements or personality as they grow in life.

As students and others spoke, they condemned the actions of Christopher Columbus after his arrival in the Bahamas and spoke of their hope for the future successes and impacts of the Indigenous People’s Day movement.

“We want our brothers and sisters to feel like they have hope,” Jaida Cooper, Red Cedars On The Ground, of the Crow Tribe, said. “We want our brothers and sisters to no longer feel like they have nothing to live for, we want our brothers and sisters to not commit suicide.”

Columbus, an Italian navigator, first set out from Spain in 1492 on a trade voyage to demonstrate that the world could be sailed around, and mistakenly called the Taino people of the Bahamas “Indians” after believing he had arrived in India.

“What exactly are we celebrating? A man that got lost for spices?” Christie Wildcat, Strong Heart Woman, said.

Columbus set about enslaving the people he encountered and paved the way for additional invasions of South and Central America from Spain, including Hernán Cortés’s war against the Aztecs in 1521 — and of the “New World” in general by other European cultures. One of Columbus’s journal entries from his initial arrival reads: “They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces. They do not carry arms [firearms] or know them... They should be good servants.”

“In 1492, Columbus was discovered by indigenous people. The indigenous people welcomed him, and in return he caused a mass genocide,” Cooper said.

Cooper and others wore “bloody hands” facepaint — red handprints symbolizing the suffering of indigenous women and children in particular.

“I ask you all to endeavor to learn more, and to connect with indigenous peoples,” Willow said. “My ancestors suffered through hell so that their children and their grandchildren would be here, and because of them I stand before you, alive.”

Toward the conclusion of the demonstration, Willow invited onlookers to join together “as indigenous people and as humans in general” in a round dance to traditional music.

Keepers of the Fire plans to hold more events in November, which is recognized as Native American Heritage Month.

“We want everyone to be included,” Willow said. “We want larger campus awareness about problems of minorities, and in particular about Native American problems in our community.”