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Expert: Rokita statements against Biden's Indigenous People’s Day proclamation show political agenda

Todd Rokita

(Alan Mbathi/IPB News)

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita spoke against President Joe Biden’s proclamation making October 11th Indigenous People’s Day. 

He spoke in Clinton, Indiana to celebrate Columbus Day, his office reported Monday.

In a statement, Rokita’s office said he spoke about defending American liberties, the importance of religion, and preserving “God-given rights that are enshrined in the constitution.”

Liza Black is an assistant professor of history and Native American and Indigenous studies at Indiana University. She said Rokita’s statements showed a political agenda and were problematic. 

“For me, it just felt like a huge conflict in that this is a political agenda he is proclaiming, not a legal one, and from my perspective not within his job duties,” Black said.

Rokita’s office’s statement called Biden’s proclamation, making October 11th Indigenous People’s Day, was “a deliberate attempt to purge Columbus from our history, and forever erase his contributions from memory.”

Black said that Rokita’s comments had little to do with acknowledging heritage or history and more to do with politicizing it.

Black said if people still wanted to acknowledge Columbus Day, they’d need to contend with historical facts, confirmed by Columbus’ own writings, that portray him in a negative light.

“This is just the nature of history and our access to knowledge,” Black said. “If people continue to uphold him, then they should be prepared for other perspectives, and not just other perspectives, but other facts about activities he engaged in in regard to sexual assault and enslavement of Indigenous people.” 

Black said the language used by Rokita implied Columbus should be admired, which can create confusion, especially for K-12 students.

“They were taught one thing in grade school, and then they find out something totally different, and it creates this huge conflict,” Black said.

The Executive Director of the American Indian Center of Indiana, Carolina Castoreno, said the statement was offensive and not factual, including Rokita’s assertion that Columbus discovered the New World. 

“Indigenous people, we have existed on this continent for thousands and thousands of years,” Castoreno said. “This is where we are from. So, there was no discovery. You cannot discover something that was already occupied.”

Castoreno said Rokita’s statements were hostile, intentionally used divisive language, and ignored historical documentation of how he was received while alive.

Castoreno added that she was not supportive of President Biden’s proclamation of Indigenous People’s Day as a federal holiday because it falls on the same day as the also federally recognized Columbus Day.

She said Indigenous people were already celebrating Oct. 11 as Indigenous People’s Day.

“Yes, we want that federally recognized, but if you’re not abolishing Columbus Day, it’s an empty gesture,” she said. “We wouldn’t expect other oppressed groups to share a holiday with their principal oppressor.”  

She said she doesn’t want divisiveness between communities.

“It’s about being accurate, and [Rokita’s] rhetoric contributes to native erasure,” she said.

Castoreno said people should honor Indigenous People’s Day by looking toward sources that offer peer-reviewed academic information and the lived experiences of Indigenous groups – not politicians with a nationalist agenda.

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