A season of reflection and redefining origin stories

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By Dezarae Churchill

Do we hold the burden or the pleasure of redefining the plagued stories of the past?

Holidays are a way to commemorate the past. America is trying to find out how to move forward in a way that acknowledges the past while paying respect to all citizens. 

Fall holidays such as Columbus Day, or Indigenous People’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving are staples in American society. With a national past drenched in brutality, though, are we holding on to holidays simply for tradition’s sake? 

Cultural awakening underway
In the past few years, Americans are recognizing the importance of understanding the truth of the country’s history, which has been criticized for being whitewashed and leaving out the experiences of minority and marginalized people who thrived before colonialism. Yet it seems we can not agree culturally on how to acknowledge the past without glorifying it. 

Brian Martinez, WPU junior theater major, is disappointed with the lack of inclusivity in the way American history is taught by public schools. Like others, he wonders why are we are taught so little about people who lived on this land before it was The United States of America.

“Indigenous people are the real American history,” said Martinez. “The fact that they haven’t been recognized until now is really racist. We need to recognize more Native Americans, authentically.”

The challenge that lies ahead of us is how do we acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and create a more inclusive future. 

Dr. Vincent Melomo, WPU associate professor of anthropology, says holidays provide society with time to reflect on a particular event or group of people who have struggled or impacted our way of life. By constructing holidays from important events, we are paying respect to their contributions and sacrifices of the people who are commemorated.

“As a proclamation, it’s really just trying to recognize a particular event or people,” Melomo said. “[Holidays] serve to bring different people into the more American national culture. Yesterday was Diwali and was celebrated at the White House. That sort of recognition makes it more familiar in the broader American culture.” 

Paint your face, but don’t appropriate a race
Traditions evolve throughout time. Halloween originated as a festival among ancient Celtics, who believed spirits of those who died that year could visit on the evening of the harvest festival. They would wear costumes to keep a wandering spirit from possessing their body. 

Costumes were not mass produced until the 1950’s. Before that they were sewn at home and were traditionally ghosts, angels and demons to warn traveling spirits.

In the past few years, there have been more conversations regarding whether or not certain costumes are acceptable, in particular costumes that imitate other racial or cultural groups.

Blackface originated in the early 1800s in minstrel shows and was used to reinforce white supremacy by perpetuating negative stereotypes about freed Black people. They also portrayed slaves as happy-go-lucky, singing and dancing with an exaggerated smile on their face. 

Many of the caricatures created by minstrelsy carried over to other areas of media, and are now considered dehumanizing and racist because they minimize someone’s existence into a caricature. Tik Tok is a hub for cultural education, and some creators have explained their frustration with those who wear blackface is that they will never understand the struggle of 200 years of oppression and fighting to be seen as human.

This year in Cedar City, Utah, a group of teens were filmed inside a Walmart wearing blackface and prison costumes. A Tik Toker video of the teens went viral and was condemned in a st by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

“We strongly condemn racism in all its forms and we call on every Utahn to reject such offensive stereotypes, slurs and attitudes,” the statement read. “We must do better.”

Society has struggled often with drawing the line with inappropriate and racist Halloween attire. In the early 90’s, it was very common to see Pocahontas costumes, as she was the only minority princess represented at the time.

Martinez believes continuing the conversation about inappropriate costumes is essential. Dressing up as someone’s heritage can give off the impression that anyone who is not a part of that culture can be treated like an accessory. – They can also always take it off in times that are non-beneficial, while there are people living in oppressive conditions due to their ethnicity.

“The change has to start with big corporations, Party Cities, Spirit Halloweens… There’s no reason to have costumes of voodoo princesses, that’s something that’s specific to African people. It isn’t a costume just anyone can wear,” said Martinez. “It’s also not just about race, lots of people this year dressed up as Jeffrey Dahmer. They need to have more common sense.”

Martinez urges everyone to hold their friends accountable. If they are wearing something insensitive or making inappropriate remarks, call them out. 

Give Thanks, but say goodbye to Thanksgiving
Many U.S. children grew up learning that Thanksgiving was a feast to welcome Europeans, but these ideas are changing. 

The commonly told Thanksgiving story is one in which natives concede to colonialism peacefully, says David Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University, in his book, “This Land is Their Land…. He argues that this myth erases the brutality of colonization.

“The myth is that friendly Indians welcome the Pilgrims, [and] hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit,” Silverman was quoted as saying this in a 2019 Smithsonian article by Claire Bugos. 

Silverman argues that the feast depicted in many books was actually a survival tactic by Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, after witnessing the death and devastation of his people at the hands of the settlers.

For the next 100 years, Thanksgiving was a time of fasting and supplication to God, not feasting. In the late 1700s, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth spread the idea that the pilgrims founded America and had a great feast with the Natives. 

Many Americans view the origins of Thanksgiving as problematic. Twenty years ago, it was a common practice for students to create Thanksgiving crafts representing the feast, and many young adults recount classroom activities depicting some students as pilgrims and ‘Indians, perpetuating racial stereotypes.

The day is now commonly celebrated as a time of giving thanks, being grateful for the bounty in our lives, and spending time with family.

Photo of Decolonizing Thanksgiving, by Dylan Cross 
Event hosted by the Office of Student Involvement, held on November 14 in Main Parlor

Indigenous People’s Day replaces Columbus Day
The discord between Christopher Columbus’ search for new land making him an explorer or a colonizer is another celebration whose meaning is being reconsidered. Many Americans now agree that Columbus is not someone to idolize.

Miles Carter, senior communications student believes the path of reconciling the past is recognition and reparations.

“Columbus was a mass murderer. I think Indigenous people should get a day. As a society, there is so much hate going on, we really need to do something to make an impact. That should be our main focus,” said Carter.

On October 10, 1992, a group of Native Americans protested Columbus Day in Berkeley, California, marking the beginning of Indigenous People regaining their power over Columbus’ actions against their people.

Last year, President Biden declared Indigenous People’s Day a federal holiday, one of the first times a president had acknowledged the brutal foundation of America. He also acknowledged the contributions of Italian Americans and the same sentiment of regret and apology.

Biden declared it as a day to honor “our diverse history and the Indigenous peoples who contribute to shaping this nation.”
Columbus Day is celebrated the second Monday in October every year. WPU announced that moving forward the university will acknowledge the day as Indigenous People’s Day and the university will be closed.

Melomo notes that the origin of Columbus Day also relates to an ethnic community. The Italian community pushed Columbus Day to become a federal holiday in the 1800s, after the lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants when they were found not guilty of murdering the police chief. Some Italians felt creating a national holiday for Columbus was a form of retribution for the discrimination they were facing. 

“In some areas, it isn’t just about Columbus in general, but for some Italian Americans…he is this unique part of that ethnic identity in a way that they might want to preserve,” said Melomo. 

More Representation for All Cultures 
Increased cultural awareness pushes  society to develop.But sometimes greater representation also creates a greater opportunity for misinformation. One example is confusion between Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead, which are close on the calendar but have vastly different meanings. 

Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life in Mexican and Latinx cultures, in which people create altars called ofrendas to honor deceased relatives. Candles are arranged in a cross so spirits can find their way home, and water, food and banners are arranged to represent elements of water, wind, earth and fire. 

The 2017 Disney movie “Coco” highlights the holiday by taking viewers on a journey to the afterlife in Santa Cecilia, Mexico. While there has been an increase in commercial availability for Dia de Los Muertos products since its release, they are typically found within the Halloween aisles in stores, and some people view it as insensitive to adorn traditional Day of the Dead attire or dress up as a sugar skull for Halloween. 

Nivia King, freshman exercise science major is proud of her Mexican heritage, and is excited there is a greater representation of her culture in mainstream America.

Her family celebrates Dia de Los Muertos by honoring the lives of their family members that have passed and her mother always makes Menudo, a traditional Mexican soup made from cow tripe. Her mother uses tongue, tomatoes, potatoes, and beans.
“Halloween and Day of the Dead are two separate holidays, and there should be a distinct line between the two,” said King. 

Moving Forward

One of the key questions America has to figure out is how do we create a more inclusive future?

We can start by providing space for everyone to share their stories. 

“Letting people speak their truths that are relevant, and letting others hear is important”, said Melomo.