Colorful displays, heartfelt speeches and upbeat dancing came together at the Julian A. McPhee University Union Oct. 9 in celebration of the recently renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Students and faculty of various ethnic backgrounds gathered for the first ever Indigenous People’s Day on campus. Instead of calling the holiday Columbus Day, the city of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly gave a more accurate perspective of the holiday by recognizing the people who inhabited the continent first.
This is the first year Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) helped organize the event. ASI Secretary of Inclusivity and Diversity Nimrah Aslam reached out to the American Indian Student Association (AISA) and Movimento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlán (MEXA) to collaborate in organizing the event. AISA and MEXA have been celebrating indigenous people in previous years.
“I think it’s so important for Cal Poly to have events like these because it helps culture the students and exposes them to the different types of cultures that make up our campus,” Aslam said. “This also helps the students who are directly related to the event feel like they are welcomed on this campus. By hosting events with other clubs, ASI allows the most qualified group of people to appropriately put this event on, which will lead to helping the campus unite as one.”
One of the speakers at the event was ethnic studies professor Jenell Navarro, who worked as a faculty consultant for the design and language of the event. Navarro explained the importance of recognizing indigenous people instead of Christopher Columbus.
“It is necessary to reject the Columbus narrative because he never actually set foot on what we now call the United States, millions of indigenous people were here prior to the arrival of any settlers, and indigenous communities remain present in these lands,” Navarro said. “The narrative told about the supposed ‘discovery’ that Columbus made serves to bolster settler colonialism as a structure of continual disruption in indigenous life, and it maintains a racial hierarchy for settlers who have dispossessed Indigenous People from our ancestral territories. The celebration of Columbus operates to harm indigenous people.”
Navarro said she received only positive responses from students after the event. She said indigenous students were also very excited about this event because it gave them a greater sense of positive representation.
Navarro said acknowledging the founders of the land we are on is the first step in recognizing and respecting indigenous people.
“Here at Cal Poly we are guests in Northern Chumash lands and need to honor them as the land stewards of this region,” Navarro said. “No matter where you find yourself in the United States, you are on Native land so honoring those people is a great way to start.”
An Indigenous student’s perspective
Political science senior Xochitl Villa is the treasurer for AISA and assisted in creating the displays at the University Union for the celebration. Villa felt emotional throughout the event, from planning it to seeing it come to fruition.
“We’re at a predominantly white institution, so it’s pretty significant for that to even be recognized,” Villa said. “During the event, it was pulling at my heart strings. It was just such an emotional thing for my president and I to see our culture being represented, our people being represented and being acknowledged for their resilience and strength and just being acknowledged as valuable humans… We may not be extremely visible due to the demographics, but it was a great way to showcase our presence.”
Villa also said this event was the first time she’s felt connected to Cal Poly’s campus while she’s studied here. She said she felt silenced in previous years, but now feels positive that change is happening on campus.
“Everything about this school silenced me and pulled me into a reclusive state where I just closed myself off from everything,” Villa said. “I don’t know what was in me to keep coming back to this school, but just to be able to say that I’m entering my fourth year and I’m not only getting more involved, but I’m seeing change on campus and seeing not only me valuing myself and my voice, but also the campus valuing us as a whole is huge… Throughout the entire event, I was on the verge of tears, just from how proud I was to see the Aztec dancers there and to see Jenell Navarro speak the truth and everything else about the event.”
While Villa is excited to see new changes, she believes there’s still a long way to go in terms of Cal Poly recognizing underrepresented students.
“We just really need a paradigm shift at this school,” Villa said. “There’s a big problem with cultural competence.”