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“What day is it?”: Decolonizing Your Verbiage

CW: Genocide

I write this article as a white, cis-gendered woman. I use “we” to encapsulate the collective museum community (past and present) of primarily white cis-gendered people who have contributed to and benefited from the field and its colonial foundations. If you also identify with my description of myself, then you are a part of this, too. My ancestors and their peers started this foolishness[1]; it’s on me and mine to end it.

Let's begin.

What we say matters. It’s not only how we say something but understanding how verbiage like colloquialisms and names of places or mascots have come to be is equally important. Actively seeking and knowing these histories are steps toward decolonizing our minds. This internal work is essential to changing our professional work; it’s important to get our minds set in the direction we want our professional goals to follow.

But why do that? Why change how we do things? Well, the work we’ve been doing has caused a lot of harm and trauma to the communities that white museum professionals have historically excluded. We’ve exploited those communities for our own professional gain. Whether we know it or not, traditional museum practices we continue can do more harm than good.

Throughout the past year, there’s been an influx of literature, conversations, and practical examinations of the impact of colonial practices. While many of these sources have come from the Black Lives Matter Movement, the path they’ve paved has led to conversations about how colonization started in the Americas – and that’s where Columbus comes in. We see the impacts of Western societal expectations in how we treat each other and the land; we see them as resources for us to use and discard rather than as equals with whom we are meant to foster a relationship. Mentalities and practices like racism, white supremacy, misogyny, trans/homo/xenophobia, even certain religious missions and education systems[2], can be linked back to mentalities that were driving forces for colonization. To combat that, we have to decolonize. Decolonizing is unlearning; it’s questioning “why?” and “how?” to examine whatever is in front of us.

That brings us to today: Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Even though most calendars, businesses, and sales advertisements call it Columbus Day, we’re not celebrating Cristoforo Columbo (Christopher Columbus). I debated whether or not to capitalize the “c” in the name, thinking that leaving it uncapitalized would shift focus away from him and on to the Indigenous communities we’re meant to be celebrating; however, while today isn’t about him and his “discovery”, he is a key player and needs to be discussed, so I kept the name capitalized. By celebrating Columbus Day, we perpetuate with our words and actions the erasure of Indigenous Peoples. By celebrating Indigenous Peoples, we can instead focus the conversation on the rebuilding of community and tradition since 1492. Today is about recognizing the resilience and shedding light on the struggles many Indigenous communities are still facing after 530 years.

Dr. Adrienne Keene (Eastern Band Cherokee) writes in her blog, Native Appropriations:

‘“So why do I share all these stories? Because this is the Indian Country I know. These are the survivors, the anomalies, the surprises on earth. This is the progress that we represent. The side effect of the narrative of Columbus Day is an erasure of our existence back then, and an erasure of our contemporary existence now. The Americas existed before 1492, and despite the best efforts of colonization, we continue to exist, we continue to resist, and we continue to thrive. These snapshots offer just a fraction of my Native friends and colleagues, and an even smaller sliver of all of the amazing people that make up Native America. We are still here, and we’re not all sitting around in Tipi’s, wearing feathered headdresses, or speaking in broken “Tonto speak.” We are able to combine western education and traditional culture as a means to move our communities forward. When Columbus landed on the shores of the Bahamas over 520 years ago, he started a legacy of genocide that nearly wiped the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas off the planet. We weren’t supposed to survive, but here we are. These young Native leaders are bringing Indigenous perspectives, innovations, and ways of knowing to science, technology, business, law, education, arts, and more, and this is something to celebrate. So today, instead of celebrating a murdering “explorer”–I choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples.”’[3]

As do we at Gallery Talk.

Calling today “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” is part of decolonization work, but it shouldn’t end there. Actively supporting Indigenous Person-run organizations, businesses, movements, social media accounts financially or otherwise (liking and sharing posts, commenting supportive messages, reporting hateful content or accounts, etc.) can be just as important as showing up. Slide over and make room for Indigenous voices to be heard. Amplify them! Always keep learning, raising hell, and making your racist family members uncomfortable.

A map of the Caribbean Islands for your reference in the next section.

This article is dedicated to the memory and to the descendants of the Indigenous Peoples of what is now the Caribbean Islands, where Columbus “explored” from 1492-1502. Their names are bolded and their names for the islands they inhabited are underlined; the name we know the islands by today are in parentheses.

The Kalinago peoples (or the Caribs) of Wai‘tu kubuli (Commonwealth of Dominca), Liamuiga (Saint Kitts) and Oualie (Nevis), Alliuagana (Montserrat), Kanikera (Guadeloupe), Madinina (Martinque), Hewanorra (St. Lucia), Kayryouacau (Carriacou), Oruba/Ora Oubao (Aruba), as well as most of the other islands of the Lesser Antilles around 1400 CE including Grenadines, Grenada, and Curaçao[4];

The Arawak peoples of Malliuhana (Anguilla), Ouanalao (St. Barthélemy), Cobao (Cuba), Waladli (Antigua and possibly Barbuda), Karukera (Guadeloupe), Iyonola (St. Lucia), Oruba/Ora Oubao (Aruba), Ichirouganaim (Barbados) and the islands known as Grenadines and Curaçao;

The Igneri people of Liamuiga (Saint Kitts), and many other islands in the Lesser Antilles at the time of contact;

The Taíno peoples of Guanahani (the Bahamas), Cobao (Cuba), Ayiti/Kiskeya (Hispanola), Borikén (Puerto Rico), Ouanalao (St. Barthélemy), Yamaye (Jamaica), and the island known as Saba;

The Guanahatbey of Cobao (Cuba), Waladli (Antigua and possibly Barbuda);

The Lokono people of Iëre/Kairi (Trinidad);

The Ortiroid peoples of Aloubaéra (Tobago); and

The Caquetío of Bonay (Bonaire), Curaçao, and islands now part of Venezuela

The Auaké, the Jirajira, the Motilón, the Timote, the Goajiro, the Arhauco, the Cenú, the Mompox, the Chocó, the Quimbaya, the Patángoro, the Chibcha, the Mariche, the Piaroa, the Timotocuicas, the Wayuu, the Warao, the Yanomamö, the Kali’na, the Pemon, the Anũ, the Huottüja, the Motilone the Barí, the Ye’kuana, the Yaruro peoples of what is now Venezuela and Colombia;

And the Garifuna of Hairouna (St. Vincent).

This list is by no means exhaustive. I have tried to find Indigenous names for the islands where I could, but we don’t know what hasn’t been recorded. Columbus’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples would set a precedent for the next 500+ years that would result in the attempted genocide of Native and First Nations Peoples in North America. But, today, we celebrate the fact that they are still here; their cultures, traditions, and lives deserve to be respected and celebrated.

Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an emerging art museum curator and educator. She works at the intersections of social justice, activism, and complicating historical narratives. If you have questions for Sarah, please email us at and she will get back to you as soon as possible.

Notes [1] Sometimes, there isn’t a word to fully describe the emotional weight of disgust, horror, and shock that encompasses something like genocide and erasure. Foolishness is a word that seems too light to describe this feeling, but the hate that my ancestors and their peers must have felt for Indigenous Peoples has made them nothing better than fools in my eyes.

[2] With this statement, I’m talking specifically about the assimilation schools (also referred to as “residential schools”. These schools were founded in what is known today as the United States and Canada around the 1890s; there were still some schools assimilating children up until the 1970s and 1980s. While Wikipedia is not the most reliable of sources, here is a place to begin your personal research into the history of assimilation schools. Many assimilation schools were established by Christian organizations (different denominations, but Christian all the same). That is why “religious missions” is included in the description.

[3] Project 562, “Reconsider Columbus. Honor Indigenous People’s Day”. N.d.

[4] The origin on the name Curaçao is highly debated, but most records from the Spanish at time of contact/invasion are consistent with the name coming from what the Indigenous peoples of the island called themselves.

The cover image is from the MPR News article, "Political tension rises as Columbus statue falls" from June 11, 2020. It can be found here.

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