Cambridge Honors Indigenous Heritage Month with Arts and Activism

The Bridgeside Cypher. Photos courtesy of Niko Emack.

What brings together hip-hop, painted doors, film screenings, and fry bread? Cambridge’s celebration of Indigenous People’s Day.

The city encouraged residents to come out to honor indigenous histories in a month-long celebration of Indigenous People’s Day, beginning Oct. 14. Since 2016, the second Monday in October has been celebrated not as Columbus Day, but as Indigenous People’s Day, in Cambridge. Nationally, November is Indigenous Heritage Month. 

Nikolas Emack, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern’s Communication and Community Engagement Liaison, highlighted the Door Project, the Bridgeside Cypher, and the film screening as key events the city offered allowing Cantabrigians to engage with the holiday. 

Cultural Survival, a Cambridge-based indigenous rights organization, worked with other organizations—including the United American Indians of New England and Indigenous Peoples Day MA—to change the name of Columbus Day in Cambridge.

“The Mayor’s Office has been a great partner in raising awareness around these issues in the city of Cambridge in general,” Danielle DeLuca, the program manager of Cultural Survival, says. 

The Door Project grew out of a partnership between the city and the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB). Doors on loan from NAICOB were on display at City Hall. They depicted indigenous women and were adorned with phrases in native languages and uplifting messages in English. Emack sees the project as a way to open a new door—one that leads to healing rather than violence. 

The Door Project is pictured.

According to Emack, the Door Project was conceived as part of an educational and therapeutic effort to “heal and uplift those who have been oppressed in the native community, particularly women, who are so at risk of being killed or abused.” 

Mayor McGovern’s Office also partnered with Native Americans at Harvard College (NAHC). McGovern spoke at an Indigenous People’s Day event about the City’s efforts to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. In his speech, he encouraged Harvard to do the same. 

Anna Kate Cannon, a Harvard University junior who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and co-president of NAHC, explained that in contrast to the city’s calendar, the Harvard calendar demarcates the day as “Columbus Day (Federal), Indigenous People’s Day (City of Cambridge). NAHC has been circulating a petition, that has almost 1,600 signatures, to get the college to remove Columbus Day from the calendar entirely. 

The NAHC celebration, which Cannon describes as “half celebration, half rally,” happens every year in front of Matthews Hall at Harvard, the original site of the “Indian College,” which opened in 1655 to educate native youth. Students enjoyed poetry readings, dance performances, and four different kinds of fry bread, Cannon says. The students also circulated their petition. 

“Every year there’s kind of been an element of protest,” Cannon says. “We just want to make it so this can be just a celebration.” 

The Bridgeside Cypher is a hip-hop collective that Aaron King and a few of his friends have been hosting in Central Square, once each month, for the past two years. In order to further engage young people around indigenous issues, Emack enlisted the Cypher to perform on the front steps of City Hall as The Pull Up food truck served Latin and soul food nearby. The cypher drew a mix of native, Cambridge-born and Latino performers.

“[The performances] highlighted how hip-hop is incorporated in a lot of different cultures, how it relates and speaks to a lot of different … themes of fighting the system,” King says. 

The Bridgeside Cypher also featured a food truck.

King says he learned about the misconceptions around Columbus Day during his freshman year at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

“From a pretty young age, [I realized] that Columbus Day was celebrating somebody who had actually been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people,” King says. “As it’s shifted in the last few years to be renamed Indigenous People’s Day, it’s a relief.” 

DeLuca, who is Italian-American, says her identity informs her relationship to Columbus Day. 

“There’s a lot of folks in the Italian-American community who have been trying to hold onto Columbus,” she says. “This kind of discrimination and white supremacy in the Italian-American community needs to be countered.” 

DeLuca says Cultural Survival is involved in efforts to incorporate indigenous histories into the Cambridge public school curriculum. She says these schools only address native issues up until the third grade and that native histories post-1850 are rarely part of the narratives students learn. DeLuca aims to counter this erasure and general lack of understanding of native histories. She says Cambridge’s school system should not look away from America’s genocidal history. 

Indigenous populations in America face challenges year-round, DeLuca explains, including President Donald Trump’s attack on native land in Mashpee, Mass., and high rates of domestic violence against women in their communities. They are victims of police brutality at a higher rate than any other group. 

“It’s an issue that’s more important than just one day,” DeLuca says. 

The battle for respect and recognition continues beyond Indigenous People’s Day and Indigenous Heritage Month, DeLuca says. Cultural Survival participated in a rally at the State House this past Tuesday, Nov. 19, to show support for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Flag and Seal Bill, which would change the flag and seal’s depiction of a knife hanging over an indigenous person’s head. This December, the organization will host indigenous arts festivals on Dec. 6-8 at the Prudential Center in Boston, Mass., and December 14-15 in Cambridge, Mass.

This article has been updated to reflect that the name change from Columbus Day was enacted by a coalition of groups, including United American Indians of New England, Indigenous Peoples Day MA, and Cultural Survival, and that the doors in the Door Project were on loan from NAICOB.