BLUEMONT — On Monday, many government entities, including Frederick and Clarke counties, recognized Columbus Day, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492.
Some local Native Americans say they would rather see the day used to honor and remember Native American history instead of a colonist who historians say enslaved and killed indigenous people in the Caribbean and South America.
Clarke County residents René White, who is Lumbee Indian, and her husband Chris White, who is of Cherokee descent, said during an interview at their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains that Columbus Day is “not a day we look forward to celebrating.” René White would prefer that people dig into Native American history on that date.
Since 1992, Native American advocates have pressed states to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day over concerns that Columbus helped launch centuries of genocide against indigenous populations in the Americas, according to The Associated Press.
Several states and more than 100 cities across the United States now celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October, including Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Minnesota and Maine. This year, Virginia’s capital city Richmond recognized Indigenous Peoples Day. Virginia has 11 federally recognized Native American tribes.
As a child, René White, 54, remembers being taught that Columbus was a heroic adventurer, which she says “is totally different than the story you hear from our side.” She also remembers being called “squaw” and being told, “I thought we killed you all.”
For more than 400 years, Native Americans have faced oppression and forced cultural assimilation, said Chris White, 61. René White stressed that it's important to learn the truth so that sanitized accounts of history and stereotypes about indigenous people aren't passed on to the next generation, so that they aren't viewed as the savages in brownface depicted in movies and on TV.
“They don’t know that we are here,” she said about most people. “Because they have so much misinformation, when we try to have a conversation … they show up already thinking, already knowing that my ancestors were savages. They have already come to the conversation thinking that I’m ignorant or come to the conversation saying, ‘Aren’t you thankful that we saved you.’ They come to this conversation already thinking they know something, but they don’t.”
Reconciliation and acknowledgement
Chris White says there will always be division if people can't have conversations. He and his wife believe that acknowledging the past can bring unity and healing.
“We don’t need people in Clarke County to say, ‘I’m sorry for doing that to you,’ because they didn’t do it,” René White said. “I feel like people avoid the conversation because it’s a big, heavy topic that no one really wants to deal with.”
The Whites have made efforts to have those conversations. They are co-founders of a federally-recognized nonprofit church called Sanctuary on the Trail, located near the Appalachian Trail in Clarke County.
In 2015 and 2017, the organization hosted “The Gathering” at the Clarke County Ruritan Fairgrounds, drawing more than 5,000 people. The event featured more than 30 living history exhibitors and vendors and featured Native American music, dancing and drumming.
René White said one reason Sanctuary on the Trail organized The Gathering was to see if people were interested in learning more about Native Americans and, if so, what they would do to make a difference.
“It was definitely not a money-making event," she said, adding that $25,000 had to be raised to make it happen. "It took a lot out of us, but we also got a lot from it.”
The Whites would like to see The Gathering happen again, but they say it would require community support.
René White said the event resulted in fellowship that still continues. "We are still gathering. From that event, so many people came to us and said, ‘I'm suffering, I’m lonely, I don't have any friends. I’m dying.”
René White’s niece, Carla Locklear, 42, came to The Gathering in 2017 from Texas. Locklear, who is Lumbee and Cherokee Indian and an Air Force veteran, made the journey even though she had a rare disease that weakened her immune system. She said she felt a sense of community that she had never experienced back in Texas, so moved to Virginia and now lives with Chris and René.
Facing the truth
Native Americans did not become citizens in the United States until 1924 and were not able to vote in all 50 states until the 1960s.
The Whites say the hardships Native Americans endure often don't get much attention. For example, the National Crime Information Center reports that over 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, but only 116 of those cases were logged with the Department of Justice.
While René White is not a fan of Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is even more difficult for her. Nationwide, many Native Americans consider the Thanksgiving holiday a whitewash of the genocide of Native Americans by colonists.
“Columbus Day is about one man,” René White said. “Thanksgiving is about a whole group of people who are credited with saving the Native American people and having a Thanksgiving festival and setting in motion a whole bunch of things that aren’t true.”
She said children have approached her, saying they know a lot about Native Americans, including, “We taught you how to plant.”
Since 1990, November has been designated as Native American Heritage Month, and it's a chance for Native Americans to share their cultures and way of life. White says she often gets phone calls in November from people who feel like they need to “rent an Indian” around this time.
René White would like to see people care about Native Americans year-round, asking, “Where is our value when it is not Indigenous Day?” The word “Shenandoah” is of Native American origin, but she said Native American history isn't focused on much in the Shenandoah Valley.
As for Indigenous Peoples Day, René White said it would be great if communities could localize the event. If government entities were to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, she said they would still need to give employees the day off. Otherwise, it would send a message to indigenous people, “We’ll give you some recognition, but your holiday is not relevant.”
Locklear encouraged people to research Columbus and indigenous people so that they are informed. But what's most important to her, as the mother of a 9-year-old son, is for allies of indigenous people to simply raise their children to be good humans.
“I always tell my son, ‘Be a kind human,’” Locklear said. "You can be any color of the rainbow. You can be polka-dotted. But be a good human. [Don't] look at each other for what is different about you.”
No change on horizon
There are no plans at the moment to designate the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Winchester or Frederick or Clarke counties.
Currently, Columbus Day is not a recognized Winchester holiday, but city spokeswoman Amy Simmons said a proposal will be presented to City Council soon to add all federal holidays that are not currently observed, including Columbus Day and Presidents Day, to the city calendar. All city holidays are defined in the City's Comprehensive Employee Management System (CEMS). The city manager recommends all CEMS changes, which must be approved by council.
Frederick County Public Information Officer Karen Vacchio said the current policy of the county's Board of Supervisors is to follow Virginia's holiday schedule.
Clarke County observes official Virginia holidays, including Columbus Day, according to county Public Information Officer Cathy Kuehner.
For more information on Sanctuary on the Trail, visit sanctuaryonthetrail.org/index.html.