This opinion piece was written by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Ducson Nguyen. To submit an opinion piece to The Ithaca Voice, contact us at

This week, the Tompkins County Legislature and a committee of the City of Ithaca’s Common Council will each be considering proposals (county, city) to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day annually, on the second Monday of October. The City of Ithaca ordinance under consideration also amends a reference to Columbus Day in city code to instead refer to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

But what is Indigenous Peoples’ Day and why is it important?

Some History

The Cayuga Nation, one of the five original constituents of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, governed our area since the beginning of civilization here. In 2015 Kurt A. Jordan, an associate professor in Cornell University’s department of anthropology and American Indian studies, found evidence suggesting that several parts of Ithaca lie above ancient burial grounds of the Haudenosaunee.

The lake upon which Ithaca sits and which brought much of the city’s early economic prosperity is, of course, named for the Cayuga. Great diplomats, they were part of the world’s first democracy; Cayuga citizens lived in an egalitarian society.

Over time, the Cayuga gave refuge to the Saponi, Tutelo, and Tuscarora Indians as they fled north to escape European colonization. The newcomers also settled in and around present day Ithaca. As the Europeans and later the Americans increased their lust for land, the history of our community turned darker.

In 1779, General George Washington ordered the Sullivan Expedition, a major military campaign to expel the Iroquois from this area. The general’s orders were to “lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed. But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected.”

The campaign devastated the Iroquois Confederacy’s crops and communities. The Cayuga traveled hundreds of miles to present day Grand River, Ontario to avoid genocide. Following the expedition there were a series of treaties with the federal and New York State governments regarding the Haudenosaunee lands. The last of these was the Treaty of Canandaigua, still in effect today as the federal government continues to make payments of calico cloth to the Six Nations.

Cayuga Nation land is still under dispute and the Cayuga are one of the only federally-recognized Indigenous peoples without a reservation.

Seeking Justice

More than half a millennium ago in 1454, Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal the papal bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.

The current United States Indian laws are based on this sanction of genocide now called the “Discovery Doctrine.” Native peoples across the world as well as the original inhabitants of our community are still suffering the consequences.

In 1923, more than two decades before the foundation of the United Nations, Chief Deskaheh, Cayuga—the original inhabitants of the Ithaca area—traveled to Geneva, Switzerland as the representative of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and other North American Indigenous peoples. He petitioned the League of Nations for justice for the Cayuga and other Native nations. Chief Deskaheh waited for one year to be recognized by the League, but his appeal was unsuccessful and he returned

In 1977, a delegation of Native peoples of the western hemisphere attended the United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations of the Americas also held in Geneva. The delegation tackled many issues and began formulating what is now known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The day celebrates Indigenous culture, acknowledges injustice towards Indigenous peoples, and highlights needs of Indigenous communities. While the lake, street names, a mural depicting aspects of Haudenosaunee culture on the Seneca Street parking garage, the annual First Peoples’ Festival held in conjunction with the Apple Harvest Festival, and other past and present celebrations of Indigenous culture do exist here in our city, we believe we can do more to acknowledge and honor the people on whose lands we now reside.

Why Columbus Day

Columbus Day only became a federal holiday in 1937 and celebrates Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, an occasion that kicked off centuries of exploration and colonization.

While those of us not descended from Indigenous peoples have undoubtedly benefited from that colonialism, Columbus
delivered violence, enslavement, disease, and European land grabs to this continent. Columbus never set foot in North America and has no relevant ties to Ithaca in particular.

Columbus Day has usually also been a celebration of the rich heritage those of Italian descent have brought to our city and country. However, Columbus did not represent Italy. The first Italians were often discriminated against and treated horribly by other Americans. In the South, many Italians were indentured slaves, not considered white and subject to Jim Crow Laws.

Indigenous Peoples Day is not, by any means, meant to disrespect our Italian residents. The month of October is declared Italian American Heritage and Culture Month every year by presidential proclamation and will remain a time to
acknowledge Italian culture.

We believe the second Monday of October is better suited to celebrate the history and enduring cultural contributions of Indigenous peoples. In recognizing this day we’d be joining a long and illustrious list of municipalities that also acknowledge the celebration. Locally, the Cornell Student Assembly and University Faculty Senate have passed resolutions recognizing the day.

The Tompkins County Legislature will be considering a resolution to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day at their regular meeting on Tuesday, August 15 at 5:30pm at 121 E. Court Street. The city ordinance will be discussed by the City Administration committee of Common Council on Wednesday, August 16 at 6pm in City Hall, 108 E. Green Street. If it passes out of committee it will be voted upon by the whole Common Council on Wednesday, September 6.

Please show your support for these measures by attending these meetings or writing these bodies at and

Let this celebration stand as one small way our city and county supports justice and the restitution of rights for Indigenous peoples.