Honoring resilience: The significance of Indigenous Peoples Day in Michigan

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University recognizes the resilience and historical contributions of Native Americans to the institution, region and country on Indigenous Peoples Day. Initially recognized in Michigan in 2019, President Joe Biden became the first president to issue a proclamation designating Oct. 11, 2021, a day to honor the nation's vibrant and diverse Indigenous heritage.

"The contributions that Indigenous peoples have made throughout history—in public service, entrepreneurship, scholarship, the arts and countless other fields—are integral to our nation, our culture and our society," Biden said in his proclamation. "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 centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation and terror wrought upon Native communities and tribal nations throughout our country."

Biden also issued a proclamation on Oct. 11 for Columbus Day, a federal holiday celebrating the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492. Indigenous Peoples Day is an effort to acknowledge the violence that came with claiming land already inhabited by Native people.

"For Indigenous peoples, Columbus represents a legacy of pain, death and destruction—of families, lands, spirituality and cultures," says Dr. Dee Sherwood, associate professor of social work and member of Western's new Native American Affairs Council. The council was established to support and build upon the strengths of Native American students and community members, promote Native American programming and events, and build relationships between the University and tribal nations. "Intergenerational trauma still ripples through Indigenous families and communities. So why do we celebrate this person who subjugated, tortured and mutilated Native people? Why don't we celebrate the peoples and the lands upon which this country was built?"

The focus of Indigenous Peoples Day is both to acknowledge the legacy of trauma and oppression as well as emphasize the strength of Indigenous people. It's an opportunity to learn parts of history that have not always been acknowledged in traditional school curricula—something addressed in Dr. Marcela Mendoza's Lee Honors College seminar on Indigenous peoples' rights.

"We discuss the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and learn about previous international legislation that legitimized European colonization and subordination of Indigenous communities around the world. We also discuss post-independence colonialism by settler societies like Australia and the U.S. We talk about current issues, such as the legacy of boarding schools in Canada and the U.S., building pipelines on sacred Indigenous land and doing business with tribal nations," says Mendoza, instructor of global and international studies and member of Western's Native American Affairs Council. "The honors students in the seminar say that they had not been exposed to this type of content before."

Western's College Democrats, along with the Native American Student Organization (NASO) and supported by the Native American Affairs Council, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and Department of Philosophy, hosted a panel discussion Oct. 8 involving members of Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, First Nations Ojibwe and AfroAnishaabe communities. They talked about what Indigenous Peoples Day means to them.

NASO is also hosting a Two-Spirit Talk on Thursday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m. Shannon Martin of the Gun Lake Pottawatomi and Lisa Martin of the Muscogee Nation will discuss what it means to be two-spirit, which refers to a spiritual and gender identity that is not binary in Native communities. The discussion is honoring Native contributions to LGBTQ History Month. More information is available on the NASO Facebook page.


Indigenous leaders have been advocating for international recognition of their rights since 1977, when they first proposed Indigenous Peoples Day during a United Nations International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations of the Americas. A final document was not approved until Sept. 13, 2007, but even then four countries, including the United States, opposed it. The U.S. endorsed the declaration three years later.

South Dakota became the first state to celebrate Native Americans' Day instead of Columbus Day in 1990. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a proclamation acknowledging Indigenous Peoples Day in Michigan in 2019. It was the first executive directive in state history to require training on tribal-state relations for all state department employees who work on matters that have direct implications for tribes.

"The success of tribal communities is inextricably linked to Michigan’s success, and we must ensure that they have an empowered voice and seat at the table. Today it is celebrated in many states across the country," Whitmer said when signing a renewed proclamation this year.

To date, at least 14 states and more than 130 local governments have officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. 

"In the USA, we're in a stage of reckoning with racism and with the intergenerational legacy of  colonization, trauma and violence against communities of color," Sherwood says. "We need to look back and say, 'How did we get to where we're at?' Then, ‘What do we think about that? And how do we move forward in a way that is respectful, well-informed and bends the arc toward justice?’"

In addition to Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October, Native American Heritage Month is celebrated in November. It is a time to reflect on the contributions and heritage of the country's Native populations.


We would like to recognize that Western Michigan University is located on lands historically occupied by Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodewadmi nations. Please take a moment to acknowledge and honor this ancestral land of the Three Fires Confederacy, the sacred lands of all indigenous peoples and their continued presence.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.