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Members of the Pioneer Valley’s Native community march in celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day

(Laurie Sexton/ Daily Collegian)

A crowd of 15 people celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day marched from the Fine Arts Center, throughout the University of Massachusetts and to the Amherst Commons on Saturday.

The march, which began at around 2:30 p.m., was organized by former UMass students and members of the UMass Native American Student Association (NASA) Tiffany Joseph and Lauren McInerney. The two organized the event after remembering protests they coordinated against Columbus Day while attending UMass. Since they graduated, an Amherst Town Meeting in May of 2016 voted to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead after an eighth grade class brought forward a resolution.

Joseph said the March was originally going to be held on Indigenous Peoples Day, the second Monday of October, but was delayed after significant rain to ensure the safety of those attending.

“I’m just really happy and proud that the town of Amherst voted unanimously to call this Indigenous Peoples Day,” Joseph said in the Amherst Common. She added, “Every day is Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s not just that Monday or this Saturday.”

Throughout the march, participants celebrated the town’s designation, chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Columbus Day ain’t no mo,’” “We exist, we resist, we rise” and “UMass Natives, UMass Pride.” People on the UMass campus and in the town of Amherst looked on, with many cheering and honking car horns in apparent enthusiasm.

Joseph compared the positivity the group experienced to interactions she had a decade ago when NASA was organizing workshops about Columbus Day for the UMass student body, in addition to the anti-Columbus Day protests.

“We were actually getting things thrown at us in Southwest [Residential Area],” Joseph said. “We found people were happy we had a Columbus Day and they had a day off.”

Joseph added that she and other protesters, despite being UMass students, were denied service at the Berkshire Dining Common after the protest, which she believes was due to their role in the anti-Columbus Day demonstration.

In addition, Joseph, who is Taíno (Caribbean Indigenous), said people told her she should be thankful for Columbus, because otherwise she would not “be here.”

“It was difficult, but the work needed to be done,” Joseph said. “People saw us, people heard the signs. Some people joined us in the march back then.”

While the town of Amherst recognizes Indigenous Peoples Day, UMass itself, due to its status as a state school, recognizes Columbus Day as a holiday.

In an interview, Joseph also mentioned the portrayal of a Native American on the Massachusetts state flag and the UMass state seal as symbols that NASA opposed in her time.

“I would love for UMass, if they’re going to have an indigenous person on their state seal, I would hope they honor indigenous people and not Columbus,” Joseph said.

“The Day in general is to celebrate a man who has committed so many murders, rapes…it was a slap in the face, especially when we have so many indigenous community members here,” she added.

Charlotte Mills, a senior anthropology major who is the treasurer of NASA, said that UMass’ status as a state university is a large barrier to the University discontinuing its recognition of Columbus Day, which is recognized by the state of Massachusetts at large.

She noted that, despite policy at the administrative level, she saw smaller sections of the University, such as the Department of Transportation, recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She also mentioned reading an op-ed in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian where a student’s adviser sent an email mentioning an “Apologize to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

“That’s not what it’s about,” Mills, who is Abenaki, said. “From my perspective we’re not expecting you to apologize to us, just recognize we’re here. Change it from celebrating a man who shattered our nations to something that restores a little bit of dignity to us.”

Mills said that she thought the march was successful, and mentioned the advantage of holding it the weekend after Indigenous Peoples Day because it was during UMass’ Parents Weekend.

“I think deciding to hold it not on the long weekend was good because we got lots of family members and parents in town,” she added.

Peg Benoit, who brought two flags representing her Mohawk and Western Abenaki heritage, said that she travelled from her home in central Vermont to visit family members in the area while being with other Native people in celebration.

Benoit said she expects the number of people celebrating to increase in the future, as the tradition of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day grows.

“I was hoping more people would show up, but more people each year show up,” she said. “A lot of times at the beginning, there isn’t that many.”

Virginia McLaurin, a graduate student in the UMass Anthropology Department, said that she appreciated seeing the people who watched them march, and those who enjoyed their positivity.

“I think it’s important to celebrate just as much as it is to fight,” she said. “We’re showing appreciation for the positivity of the change. You can’t be angry all the time.”

She added that she is increasingly seeing more students come to her saying that Columbus Day should not be celebrated, and that she is seeing increased interest in Native Americans as a people rather than a stereotype.

McInerney stressed how important it is for her to finally celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day after she had spent years protesting Columbus Day while in NASA.

“People were throwing s**t at us from Southwest, so to actually do a celebratory walk today, that is a huge turn around,” she said.

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

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