Indigenous Peoples Day

Dear members of the Harvard Chan School community,

Earlier this fall, a number of student groups called upon the Dean to reject the name of the holiday that falls on the second Monday in October. Echoing past calls from the Harvard Chan School Native American Student Organization, they requested that we change the name of this holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in all official School communications. At the time, I asked Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Meredith Rosenthal to lead a School-wide dialogue and ensure a full and inclusive discussion of the proposed change.

I am writing now to follow up on the community conversation Meredith convened last week on this topic. At this event, all who spoke expressed vigorous support for removing references to Columbus at the School because of the atrocities he committed against the indigenous peoples he came into contact with in the Caribbean and South America. Moreover, several individuals asked that we be mindful of important intersections between indigenous identities and other identities, such as those woven through Caribbean and Latin American communities. Participants pointed out that colonization—of which Columbus was an instrument—irrecoverably wiped out histories for many groups, and through recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day we might also invoke awareness of these silenced ancestors.

No objections to the proposed name change were voiced at the meeting, and we heard clearly that our Native American students, alumni, and staff, as well as others affected by the legacy of Christopher Columbus, should be at the center of our efforts to mark this holiday.

I am therefore pleased to announce that beginning in 2018, the Harvard Chan School will replace all mention of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on our calendar and in all official references to the day. In addition, we will work with Native American groups in our community—including alumni of the School’s Native American Student Organization, who previously petitioned the Dean’s Office for this change—to shape a process of community education and celebration in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day leading up to the second Monday in October next year.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that this change is a long time coming. While the name change is symbolic, I hope we can leverage the new occasion to raise awareness of historical and continuing injustices faced by indigenous peoples and seek opportunities to partner with these resilient communities in their efforts to improve the health of their populations. Thank you to everyone who participated in this important dialogue. Your commitment to justice and equity strengthen our community and energize our public health mission.

Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Dean of the Faculty
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health