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May 8, 2017

Students at UMass seek recognition of an Indigenous People’s Day

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian)

Students at the University of Massachusetts are looking to establish an Indigenous People’s Day at the university, after the passing of a resolution supporting the motion by the Student Government Association in January.

Gaëlle Rigaud, a junior English and Afro-American studies major and chair of the SGA’s Social Justice and Empowerment Committee, said that the planning for the motion started last year, before she entered the position.

“It sort of fell out, so since then I wanted to pick it up and get back into negotiations with the Native American Student Association,” Rigaud said. “They were still very open to a resolution like this being passed.”

Rigaud said she worked closely with the Native American Student Association (NASA), President Andreus Ridley and Sara Littlecrow-Russell, the chief of staff for UMass Student Affairs and Campus Life, in drafting the resolution.

The resolution was also influenced by a motion passed by the University of California Berkeley, which has recognized an Indigenous People’s Day, according to Rigaud.

“It was a lot of outside sources because I’m not providing for me, I’m providing for a whole other group of people,” she said.

The vote passed the SGA Senate, with several revisions made because of SGA bylaws.

In addition to the asking for an Indigenous People’s Day, the resolution called on the University to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples of North America in other ways.

“What I like about this resolution is it’s not just saying we want Columbus Day to be Indigenous People’s Day, because I understand as a federal land-grant school we might not be able to change that, Rigaud said. “I think what was most important was the asks and demands that followed below it.”

If Columbus Day cannot be changed to Indigenous People’s Day, the resolution asked for the University to send an acknowledgement that it is built on Indigenous land.

The resolution asked for the establishment of a tribal advisory board to help Native American students for a new, more accessible location for the Native Certificate program. It also advocated for increased enrollment of Native students on campus and asked for the creation of a Native alumni association.

“They don’t have an alumni association, Rigaud said. “With an alumni association they can get funds for their students, and the students can get some support they couldn’t get otherwise.”

Ridley said he felt the level of consultation for the resolution was “absolutely appropriate.”

He talked about examples of the Amherst Regional High School and the town of Amherst, which have recognized an Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day.

“The only arguments I’ve ever heard against it are rooted in how feasible it is,” Ridley said about not recognizing Columbus Day. “It’s usually rooted in logistics.”

Columbus Day has been opinioned as a holiday “perpetuating rape and genocide of indigenous people in the Americas.”

Ridley said it does not make sense to honor Columbus, whom never set foot on continental North America, with a U.S. holiday.

In an email sent by the UMass Executive Director of Strategic Communications Ed Blaguszewski, the changing of Columbus Day is described as “beyond the University’s purview, since it is an official state holiday under Massachusetts law.”

“There has been discussion about designating a day to celebrate the heritage of Indigenous peoples, which can be brought before the Faculty Senate by SGA leadership, in the spirit of the resolution adopted by the SGA,” Blaguszewski wrote in the email.

Stuart Foster can be reached at or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.

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