Today is Martin Luther King Day. It’s a day to celebrate the fight for justice, to acknowledge Dr. King’s legacy and the struggle for freedom and equality by African Americans in this country. I keep thinking of my cousin John Jacobs, one of my favorite relatives. He was one of the people who exemplified what it means to be Mvskoke to me. I remember how he stopped the car one day to help a turtle across the road. The turtle’s mouth was red with berry juice. He gently picked him up and moved him.
One afternoon while we sat visiting in his house in Holdenville, he questioned why the holiday for African Americans when Indian people have no national holiday. He lived on lands given in exchange after removal from our homelands in the southeast, and despite the United States continued efforts to disappear native peoples, and he served bravely in the military, even fighting in Italy in World War II. Our lives as native people are full of complications, difficult to explain. There is a DNA to Indian Removal that is still unwinding in us. We need to clean it up, but it’s difficult when we cannot think clearly. We eat food that isn’t real food. We don’t get enough exercise. And our public educational systems taught us and teach our children how to get along in a colonized world, not in a real world that is peopled with animals, plants, elements, and an immense sense of connection that goes to the Sun and the Milky Way. That’s another discussion, yet it is utterly relevant here.
His question made sense to me then, and it continues to make a more painful, deeper sense to me now, thirty-one years after Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday in 1983 because nothing has changed much at all. Our children do not see themselves or hear themselves in the national story. Or, when they do, we are still running from the Calvary, or we’re forever dancing or playing native flute.
There are grassroots efforts to turn Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day but we should not be linked with Columbus. We do not need a Columbus Day at all. For Columbus Day children all over America still make construction paper headdresses or explorer hats to celebrate Columbus, and they repeat the same false story, that Columbus discovered America. Columbus wasn’t the first European to set foot on these lands, and he wasn’t a hero worthy of celebration by anyone, even his own people. When he landed in the Bahamas, he was greeted by the Lucayan, Taíno and Arawak people. They had no weapons. Columbus was so impressed he immediately seized their lands for Spain and enslaved the people to work. Within two years half the population was dead. He also sold native girls into sexual slavery.
This story is repeated with nearly every point of contact by the European explorers.
I am of a generation who questioned these false American stories. We struggled and continue to work to shift the American imagination to include us as human beings. Would a national holiday for Indians make a difference? It would be a step. However, most of the shift will have to come from within us, first. We need stop seeing ourselves as subjects, and subjugated to and by this American over-culture. Who are we as Mvskoke people? What are our own stories? And do we know them? One person can make an immense difference. Let’s start here, in our community.