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Biden issues proclamations on Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day; Indigenous activists call for action instead of “empty words”


President Biden issued a pair of proclamations to set the tone for nationwide observance of Indigenous People Day/Columbus Day on Monday, October 11. Meanwhile, Indigenous activists say “performative proclamations” are useless in the face of environmental destruction suffered on Native lands.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation

In “A Proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2021” the President acknowledged the history of Tribal nations before colonization, saying, “Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations.  On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.”

The proclamation addressed the complex relationship between the United States and the Tribal nations who share the land, and the ways the Federal government fell short of the better angels of the nation;

“Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to.  That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began.  For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures.  Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.  We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.”

Biden spoke directly about treaty violations and sovereignty, “…reaffirming our Nation’s solemn trust and treaty obligations to American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations…It is a priority of my Administration to make respect for Tribal sovereignty and selfgovernance the cornerstone of Federal Indian policy.  History demonstrates that Native American people — and our Nation as a whole — are best served when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities and when Federal officials listen to and work together with Tribal leaders when formulating Federal policy that affects Tribal Nations.”

The Proclamation continued, “The Federal Government has a solemn obligation to lift up and invest in the future of Indigenous people and empower Tribal Nations to govern their own communities and make their own decisions.  We must never forget the centurieslong campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country.”

Biden spoke to the service of Native peoples in defense of the United States, and the unfair burden borne by Indigenous communities in the pandemic; “Indigenous peoples have served, and continue to serve, in the United States Armed Forces with distinction and honor — at one of the highest rates of any group — defending our security every day.  And Native Americans have been on the front lines of the COVID19 pandemic, working essential jobs and carrying us through our gravest moments.  Further, in recognition that the pandemic has harmed Indigenous peoples at an alarming and disproportionate rate, Native communities have led the way in connecting people with vaccination, boasting some of the highest rates of any racial or ethnic group.”

Biden closed with praise for all contributions of Native people “throughout history — in public service, entrepreneurship, scholarship, the arts, and countless other fields — are integral to our Nation, our culture, and our society.”

We don’t need performative proclamations

Meanwhile, the Indigenous Environmental Network issued a response entitled, “We Don’t Need Performative Proclamations, Our Communities Are Dying” attacking Biden’s track record on honoring treaties and strengthening sovereignty, saying he should, “…implement a policy of Free, Prior and Informed Consent by executive authority and act swiftly to mitigate the climate chaos that has engulfed our communities by ending the antiIndigenous U.S. legacy of fossil fuel extractivism.”

The article accused Biden of empty words, saying “Biden has consistently fallen short of protecting the water that sustains all life on Mother Earth and continuously failed to honor our treaties. He has disregarded Tribal Nations’ consent by ignoring Tribal Nations, like Red Lake and White Earth, who have been fighting Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline for years. We have had enough…Our communities need clean water, land returned, divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and healing from residential school traumas.”

“No proclamations [are] needed until there is justice for the original stewards of these lands,” says IEN, “Proclamations don’t erase the police surveillance of Indigenous peoples standing for our land and water; beatings and imprisonment for those trying to stop pipelines, fracking, LNG, uranium and other extractive industries from devastating our ecosystems and our bodies, and violating our rights.”

The organization called on Biden to use “his executive authority to make good on the promises he made on the campaign trail to respect Indigenous rights, prioritize environmental justice, and pursue an ‘all government’ approach to combating the climate crisis.”

Columbus Day proclamation

In a companion proclamation, Biden addressed the complicated issue of Columbus Day in the 21st century.

“A Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2021” praised the history of ItalianAmericans, saying many Italians would follow Columbus’ path “in the centuries to come, risking poverty, starvation, and death in pursuit of a better life.  Today, millions of Italian Americans continue to enrich our country’s traditions and culture and make lasting contributions to our Nation — they are educators, health care workers, scientists, first responders, military service members, and public servants, among so many other vital roles.”

Biden then went on to remark on the brutal legacy of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, saying, “…we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.  It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.  For Native Americans, western exploration ushered in a wave of devastation:  violence perpetrated against Native communities, displacement and theft of Tribal homelands, the introduction and spread of disease, and more.  On this day, we recognize this painful past and recommit ourselves to investing in Native communities, upholding our solemn and sacred commitments to Tribal sovereignty, and pursuing a brighter future centered on dignity, respect, justice, and opportunity for all people.”

He encouraged the country to reflect on our shared American heritage, “on America’s spirit of exploration, on the courage and contributions of Italian Americans throughout the generations, on the dignity and resilience of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, and on the work that remains ahead of us to fulfill the promise of our Nation for all.”

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