We Love Indigenous Peoples’ Day: An Interview with Activist Rich Holschuh

October 11, 2019

Photo of Rich Holschuh, Indigenous peoples' activist

In May of this year, Vermont became just the third state in the US (after New Mexico and Maine) to officially replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in state law. (A few other states and 130 cities and towns have renamed the holiday. Columbus Day remains a federal holiday.)

We’re proud of our home state, because while Columbus Day celebrates the notorious explorer, ignoring all the racism, slavery, and murder, Indigenous Peoples’ Day tells a more complete story, shining a spotlight on the people who were already here before Columbus “discovered” their land.

We recently spoke to Rich Holschuh, an educator and cultural researcher, as well as a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA), about creating this new holiday and what it means for Vermont’s Indigenous people.

Can you talk about the significance of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

For me, state and national holidays are times for people to gather together and celebrate our shared values. Columbus is not a person to be celebrated. We have full access to information on his motivations and actions and they are not honorable. But people may not know that, so we need to share that story—to talk about what actually happened. The genocide, the murders, the mutilation, the slavery.

Indigenous Peoples Day is a day to recognize what happened, how it happened, who it happened to, the legacy of what happened, and how we can do better. I see it as the cognate to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a day when we consider our legacy with civil rights. Civil rights, which traces back to slavery—something that this country was built upon and which we have a hard time dealing with to this day. The other huge thing that we have a really hard time dealing with as a country is colonialism and stolen land and what we did to the people of that land.

What's the impact of this change on native communities?

It's a matter of equity. Everybody has the right to be heard and to be seen and recognized and treated with respect. And this is going to help that process and that conversation to move forward. There's a lot of different ways that can happen—through the educational system, through political recognition, political discussion, civil discussion. It opens that door and enables those voices to be heard. That's what this is all about for the native community.

Can you talk a little about Vermont’s relationship with its Indigenous people?

Until the 1970s, Vermont history books taught that there were no and had been no native people in this state. Change comes slowly. It was only in 2010 that the state of Vermont finally officially adopted a process that recognized the Abenaki people as a group of Indigenous people that have always been here.

I will point out that recognition in and of itself is a colonized process. A group of people does not need someone else to define them.

Before the American Revolution, the Abenaki here in Vermont were on a frontier between the French to the north in what is now Canada and the British to the south and east in New England. The British flooded in here after the French and Indian War, and the Abenaki were either pushed into retreat toward their allies in Canada or they had to go underground here. They have been marginalized and discriminated against ever since.

How did you get involved in the movement to create Indigenous Peoples’ Day here?

I was appointed to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs by then-Governor Shumlin. I was reappointed by Governor Scott and I have one year left in my term. The Commission is a nine-member body. People appointed by the governor, recommended and selected by the Abenaki and native community in the state. (Not every Indigenous person in Vermont is an Abenaki person.) The charge of the Commission is to look out for the interests of the native community in Vermont. The existence of the Commission is the result of this extended recognition process that culminated in 2010. The Commission endorsed the idea of having an Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Talk about how that came about.

The idea of Indigenous Peoples' Day came from wanting to address the larger story of colonization. What has happened to the Indigenous people. Not only here, and not only continent-wide, but globally. There are Indigenous people everywhere and they have almost all been the victims of colonization

Multiple people, I'm only one, multiple people were involved over a long period of time to make this happen. Three and a half years ago I brought this up in my own town, Brattleboro, and helped get it adopted there. While I was working on this Brattleboro initiative, I approached then-Governor Shumlin and asked him to proclaim, via executive proclamation, a statewide Indigenous Peoples' Day in place of Columbus Day for one year. He did that and so did Governor Scott [Vermont’s current governor].

That was year by year. But the subject gained some momentum and some press, because this was picked up nationally, so it seemed like it was a good time to bring it to the state legislature again (because it had been brought up before unsuccessfully).

The Vermont House and Senate passed it overwhelmingly and then It went to the governor's desk. Governor Scott signed it into law in May of this year, 2019. So this observation coming up, October 14, will be the first full-on, permanent state-wide Indigenous Peoples' Day in Vermont history.

What can people who may not have thought much about the meaning of Columbus Day do to get a better understanding of the movement to replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

That is a great question. My answer to that is first, listen more and talk less. Allow native voices to be heard. The original voices from the source, not interpreting them. Just let them speak because that has been the problem all along. Stop and ask yourself, who are the Indigenous people of the place where I live? Where are they? What happened to them? What do they have to say about that? I think that's the place to begin.

Sometimes people ask me, "What should we all do?" And my answer to that from a native perspective is, "Be a good ancestor." And that kind of tells you how it is to be in the world in a good way. To recognize that who we are is a product of where we come from and where we are, and that what comes next will be a direct result of what we do with that responsibility.

What do you think this means for Vermonters and Americans overall in terms of understanding the fuller story of how our country was founded? 

I think not a lot of folks are aware of the story of the treatment of native people. What would it look like for that to change? I think there again needs to be an allowance for the voice of those people to tell that story. That story is coming out. It hasn’t been picked up and carried forward by the institutions, the media, the educational system, that control those narratives, and so we have to educate ourselves and raise awareness and listen. And as we listen, we’ll have to come to grips with the fact that we were misled. The stories that we told ourselves, the things we agreed on for so long to frame our realities weren’t true. They were missing the voices of native people.

I think it's an enrichment, a benefit to everyone to learn this because, when we get down to it on a human level, we all want things to be better. We are all in this together, and I mean that in the broadest sense. We are all in this together with the land and the water. We are all relatives. We are all connected. And Indigenous Peoples' Day can be an opportunity for people to begin to hear these stories that they have not been told. Or that have been consciously hidden.