Indigenous People’s Day—A day for all to recognize

The morning dew clung to our shoes as we walked across the field. The smell of burning sage drifted about as light flooded the air. People from the Northern Chumash tribes and San Luis Obispo community came together to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, formally known as Columbus Day.
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Photo taken by Heraldo Family Photo | Fred Collins lighting sage at morning sunrise.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed across the ocean blue and helped start the mass genocide of Native Americans on Hispanolia that spread to the mainland. And every year since 1792, Americans have celebrated his discovery of a land that had already been discovered and inhabited.
The terrain we walk on every day in San Luis Obispo has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. The occupants of the last 1,000 millennia have been the native Northern Chumash tribes. Last year, ASI hosted an event at the University Union where students could gather and listen to speeches from ASI president Chumash Tribal Chair Mona Tucker and ethnic studies professor Jenell Navarro. But what happened this year?
If you are a Cal Poly student, then you received the following email addressing the celebration on Oct. 8 at 2 pm, a mere two hours before the planned event:
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Despite the short notice, Cal Poly students still came out in the hundreds to show their support. While ASI stepped back this year, the Cross Cultural Centers and University Housing stepped up and helped coordinate with MEXA and AISA, as ASI did last year. Held in the courtyard of yakʔitʸutʸu, more than 300 students gathered to honor the Indigenous people who have called this land their home, with prayers and speeches from Chumash representatives and provided educational pamphlets (provided by event attendees).

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Student expectations for the event taking place were high across campus, but it, “felt like it was hushed on campus and organized in [a] hasty way,” states Violet Selznick, Cal Poly anthropology and geography major. It seems as if no other conversations about the role of the Indigenous people of our area and their contribution to San Luis Obispo culture were held on campus. How can we possibly celebrate that which we are ignorant to understand? Is it so touchy a subject, or simply seen as not important enough to have a place in the classroom and elsewhere on campus? Selznick suggests, “It would’ve been nice for professors to open the conversation.”
“In California elementary schools, teachers take at least a few minutes to ask their students what the holiday means to them,” she said, but why isn’t that happening here, on a college campus, with a discussion that is much more important than Columbus, and with a much more educated audience?
Maybe the power lies with the professors, the role models of campus. Or maybe students need to speak up more about their desire to learn more about the heritage of the area in order to continue change . Perhaps future celebrations should include taking the day off classes to celebrate on campus. We could create a community initiative to inform, educate and celebrate the Indigenous people who discovered this land long before the colonizers made their way to the continent. Informational pamphlets can be posted on every student’s Portal, giving easy access to all. Historical presentations, musical events, and storytelling opportunities abound, but it must be made a priority if we are to truly celebrate a national holiday of such importance. A simple start would be to have the campus administration officially change the traditional Columbus Day moniker to a happily celebrated holiday, Indigenous People’s Day.
A resolution was passed by ASI last year to recognize the holiday, but no progress was made and without ASI’s involvement in the event this year, it is difficult to see where it hit the wall. Even with the resolution, it seems nothing was done about making it an official holiday from the administration side, as requested in the resolution. In order to make it on the official registrar calendar a bill will need to be passed on behalf of all the CSU’s, according to the office of the registrar. Although this will take more work, we should be doing what we can to show Indigenous people and students the respect they’ve always deserved.
To the larger campus, this year was only the second year of celebration, but Indigenous groups on campus have been celebrating for over thirty five years, but it was known as “Indigenous People’s Day of Resilience,” according to an unnamed source. The rest of us are 28 years late. This should not just be on Indigenous students to fight for change of holiday—it’s on every member of the Mustang family. We need to speak up and stand behind our fellow peers and Indigenous community members.
Cal Poly isn’t completely absent of support for local Indigenous people. This year, with the opening of the new yakʔitʸutʸu residence halls, the Cal Poly community is becoming more aware of its ties to the ancestral land and tribes.
In spite of student’s fear about respecting and pronouncing the names correctly, everyone is working hard to get it right. “It’s incredible living in yakʔitʸutʸu. From my experience, all of the students have been really awesome in actually pronouncing the names and being respectful of the cultural significance of the names,” shares tiłhini resident advisor Christian Laubacher.
“The land needs to hear these names breathed back into it,” says Kelsey Shaffer yak titʸu yak tiłhini tribal member, expressing gratitude of the new buildings. For the Cal Poly students in attendance, hearing directly from the Chumash tribe really helped reaffirm the importance and impact the new building names have.
The dorms will remain on campus for decades, standing as a physical remembrance of the loss suffered, helping continue the conversation. While inviting speakers to campus does help educate students temporarily, the buildings serve as an apparent sign of the campus’s dedication, said Cal Poly Faculty and Staff members.
Despite our campus administration being behind the times around the recognition of Indigenous People’s Day, the San Luis Obispo is seizing the present. This year (and last), SLO joined alongside 55 other cities in celebration of Indigenous People’s Day. A special thanks was given to Mayor Heidi Harmon for pushing in favor of the change of holiday, when she hosted the sunrise event at Laguna Lake and was in attendance at the campus event.
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Photo by Heraldo Family Photo | Northern Chumash member Wendy Lucas hugging Mayor Heidi Harmon.
Gathering together for the sunrise is a traditional celebration for Indigenous groups. Every year on Alcatraz they have a similar sunrise event both on Indigenous People’s Day and Thanksgiving. To some, waking up that early to celebrate lacks appeal, but Indigenous people everywhere, it serves as a “celebration of their personal relationship to nature.”
Although we come together once a year to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, we must keep in mind that this is the Chumash Tribe’s reality. “One member of the tribe shared something that really stuck with me,” explained Selznick about the sunrise. “‘To us, every day is Indigenous People’s Day,’ and that is an important thing to remember.”
While some of the most damaging physical battles were generations ago, the Chumash Tribe is still struggling for their land. Tribal Member Fred Collins said:
“We are fighting to remind people that we are still here.”
Before everyone went their separate ways after the sunrise event, Collins pointed out a crane resting on the lake. It had been a long time since he had seen this crane species in San Luis Obispo, and the bird holds a special significance to the Chumash people. Excitement radiated off Collins as he explained the anomaly of seeing this sacred creature.
For those of us in attendance, watching the day break over the park while prayers were chanted, and tribal stories were shared, helped connect the tribal members to land that their ancestors once roamed. They shared with us the importance of the grounds that now house our campus and university home. A place where cranes were not an anomaly and where tribal names flowed through the valleys like the crystal streams from Bishops Peak.
We are but visitors to their land, and we need to know more about this place, the people, and the culture. Let us start by giving the holiday the respect and importance it deserves. Plans for Indigenous People’s day are beginning well in advance for the following year, said Navarro. Hopes are that the campus calendar will reflect and acknowledge it as a priority on our campus to show our appreciation.
As a campus, we need increase the awareness, education, and planning around Indigenous People’s Day. So, why aren’t we?

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