VOICES: Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day and climate change

Congress established the second Monday of October as Columbus Day, a national holiday, in 1937. It celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492. This year, Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day falls on Monday, Oct. 10.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day originated in Berkeley, CA in 1992 as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day and to emphasize the violent colonization of the Americas at the expense of native populations. In 2021, President Biden signed a presidential proclamation declaring Indigenous Peoples’ Day to be a national holiday to honor the cultures and histories of Native Americans.

The Inupiat, part of the Inuit ethnic group, are an indigenous people who live in Utqiagvik, Alaska, a village on the Arctic Ocean with a population of roughly 4,000. In 2016, residents voted to change the name of their village from Barrow back to the Inupiat name, Utqiagvik. This was one part of a local effort at “decolonization.”

Two years ago, while walking through the Browerville part of Utqiagvik, I met Captain Frederick Brower, a native whaling captain. His family have been leaders in this community for generations. He was processing his allotted parts of a whale he and his crew had caught a few days earlier off Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the U.S. He was preparing the meat and making oil from the fat. Three seal skins were drying on a line. In addition, he had a stack of other whale parts, such as bones and baleen, that he was giving to native artists for their various crafts. He explained that the crew and community also shared in the catch with all receiving portions of the whale. Further, he said he could have pursued another whale, but it was the custom to help other whalers after an individual catch was made.

We discussed climate change, the resultant loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean, sea level rise, and the melting of the permafrost causing structures in this area to fail. Global Warming is seriously affecting the wildlife in this area (e.g., whales, seals, walrus, polar bears, caribou, birds, etc.), as well as the Inupiat and their way of life. At the current and projected increasing rate of coastal deterioration, sea water will cover the land on which we were standing, native land that has supported this community for its entire existence. They have attempted to slow the erosion by building a berm and placing large blocks of tundra wrapped in plastic on shore, but waves continuously wash them out to sea.

Last month, I returned to Utqiagvik and spoke with whaling Captain C. Eugene Brower, Frederick’s father. He stated that sea level in that area had risen significantly since my last visit just two years ago! In short, the community will have to adapt to these changes or move from this area. How would you and your family feel if you had to move from your home, after living for thousands of years as a subsistence community in tune with nature, because of warming produced by others?

This warming not only affects our indigenous people, it affects all of us. We need to recognize what is happening and work toward solutions.

One piece of the solution is to protect what remains of our natural environment, including its Indigenous people. In that regard, we must oppose the destructive policies that are championed by the fossil fuel industry, mining companies, and the lumber industry. Through lobbying and political contributions, they have excessive influence on our government laws, rules, and regulations.

History has demonstrated that, because of a maximum profit philosophy, these industries have been unable to act in a socially conscious way. Their greed has too often resulted in destruction of the environment. We need to demand that our government representatives support protection and preservation of our incredible natural resources. We also need to play our part in this battle. It is not only necessary for the preservation of the world as we know it but also for our own personal health and that of future generations.

This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, think about how we can play our part in this battle. It is not only necessary for the preservation of indigenous populations, but also for our own personal health and that of future generations.

Thomas P. Martin, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Health, Fitness, and Sport at Wittenberg University.

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