Draped in buckskin covered with elk teeth, Brettnee Beartrack knelt down into the grass on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus and placed a flag for her people of the Kiowa Nation in the makeshift medicine wheel students had made on Monday.
In the distance about a dozen male students played a giant buffalo drum and sang Native American songs heard across campus.
Students at Haskell, the only four-year university in the country for Native Americans that’s fully funded by the federal government, were out of class for Columbus Day, one of 10 federally recognized holidays.
But the students, all of them American Indian, were celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day. A week earlier, Haskell students, dressed in regalia from native tribes, had marched three miles from their Lawrence campus to City Hall to get city officials to proclaim the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day.
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While most of the country celebrates Columbus Day, the Lawrence City Commission agreed in an official proclamation that this year in their city Oct. 12 would be known as Indigenous Peoples Day.
Monday’s event was planned, students said, because they figured either they would celebrate to bring awareness in the community about the struggles and history of American Indians or, “we would be celebrating having gotten the city to recognize this day as Indigenous Peoples Day,” said Barbara Wolfin, an organizer of the event.
Lawrence is among nine U.S. cities — including Albuquerque, N.M.; Portland, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Olympia, Wash. — to establish Indigenous Peoples Day this year.
“It is definitely a big accomplishment and a step in the right direction,” said Beartrack, a 20-year-old Haskell junior from Oklahoma and the university’s homecoming queen.
American Indians, including Haskell students, sought to have Columbus Day changed, “because, the truth is people as early as elementary school are taught that Columbus did all this great stuff — discovered America and found all this land — but he came here and our people were killed and the land was stolen,” said Lori Hasselman, editor of The Indian Leader, Haskell’s student newspaper.
“A lot of people don’t even know that American Indians still exist. But we are still here.”
Hasselman, who helped organize the march and Monday’s celebration, said there is still plenty of work to be done.
Students wanted city officials to proclaim Oct. 12 as Indigenous Peoples Day for perpetuity, but city officials reworded the proclamation limiting the recognition to one year only.
“I didn’t know they had done that” until it was read in city commission chambers the day students marched to City Hall, said Leslie Soden, vice mayor of Lawrence. “I think we need to make this an annual holiday for our city.”
Students said they began writing another proposal to make Indigenous Peoples Day an annual event in Lawrence the day after they got the day proclamation from commissioners.
“But we are not going to stop there,” said Beartrack. “Maybe we can get the entire state of Kansas to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day.