The History of Indigenous Peoples Day

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew left Palos de la Frontera, in southern Spain, and sailed the ocean blue on board La Niña, La Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Columbus and his crew arrived on one of the islands of The Bahamas in the early morning of October 12, 1492. The Taino, the native people that he encountered, were friendly to him and his crew. Eventually, the relations that the Europeans and native Americans formed  would deteriorate. But one is left wondering how their first encounter was like. How did they greet each other? Did Columbus greeted them in Castilian or Genoese (the concept of Spanish and Italian as we understand today did not exist at that time)? Or did he greet the “Indians” in Sanskrit? Unlikely. Unfortunately, the Taino language became extinct in the 16th century, one hundred years after the first encounter on October 12, 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Many of the native inhabitants that Columbus encountered in the Caribbean were of Arawakan origin, whose ancestors came from the depths of the Amazon. Although Taino is no longer spoken, other Arawakans have survived and can be heard in interior regions of Venezuela, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. Guarani is a the most preserved of native South American languages, being an official language of Paraguay, along with Spanish. In Chile, the Mapuche language is spoken by natives. Had Columbus encountered them, the Mapuche would probably greet him with a kind mari mari.

The cultures of Mesoamerica were influenced by Aztec culture and its language, Nahuatl. South of the Aztec sphere of influence were the many Mayan city-states. Today, many dialects of the Nahuatl language are spoken in central Mexico. In  Eastern Huastec Nahuatl, people say pialli, when they greet. In the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and Guatemala, the Ancient Maya left traces of an extraordinary civilization. Fortunately, the many descendants of  this ancient people have lived on speaking a myriad of Maya varieties. One of these varieties is Mopan Maya, spoken in Belize and Guatemala, where, if you meet the locals who speak the language, make sure the say d’yoos to them.

The United States is not bereft of a rich, native linguistic diversity. Cherokee, a language spoken in Oklahoma and the Appalachians, has a rich history and an interesting writing system. To say hello, just say  ᎣᏏᏲ (osiyo). Lakota, a Sioux language, is mainly spoken in the Dakotas, Montana, Minnesota, and Nebraska. When Lakotas want to say hello, men and women say háŋ, but háu is just reserved for men. In Navaho, spoken in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, yá’át’ééh means hello. Another language spoken in the Southwest and Mexico is Apache, where, sure you can say hola or hello, but why not give dagot’ee a go?

October 12 has many names in jurisdictions where this date is of importance. In Spain it is called Fiesta Nacional de España, Spain’s national holiday. In other Latin American countries, it is called Día de la Hispanidad, a day to celebrate the Spanish heritage we inherited from Spain. In Mexico, it’s called Día de la Raza, alluding to the celebration of  peoples of Amerindian, European, African, and Asian heritages that mixed to form a unique, but diverse Latin American people. Here in the United States, however, is called Columbus Day. For Italian Americans, it means that an Italian was able to be on the American spotlight at a time where many Italian Americans felt marginalized in this country. Recently, though, a lot of attention has been directed to the negative aspects of the Columbus’s “discovery”—and for good reason. We must not forget that for the original inhabitants of the Americas, not everything was great, and many peoples died, cultures were lost, languages vanished, and rich civilizations that can never be recovered disappeared. Thankfully, Native Americans from both continents and through the efforts of various organizations, universities, institutions, and research we have been able to preserve, teach, and learn a lot of surviving Amerindian cultures, languages, and traditions.

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