North Dakota higher education students want day off to celebrate Indigenous People's Day

North Dakota Student Association asks higher education leaders to make the day typically celebrated in place of Columbus Day an official holiday. It also would be used for a mental health break.

A judge watches over teenage dancers during the dancing competition held at The Mandaree Hidatsa Powwow Friday, July 19, 2019 in Mandaree, N.D.
File photo / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — A group of university and college students want a day off to recognize Indigenous People’s Day and take a mental health break from classes.

The State Board of Higher Education’s academic and student affairs committee didn't act Tuesday, March 15, on a resolution submitted by the North Dakota Student Association that asked the North Dakota University System to recognize Indigenous People’s Day, which is typically celebrated on the second Monday of October in place of Columbus Day.

If approved by the full board, Indigenous People’s Day would become an official holiday and students at public North Dakota colleges and universities would get that day off from classes.

“It's important not only to take that day to acknowledge the history within our country, but also to take a day off and remembrance for all that has happened,” she said.

Columbus Day celebrates Christopher Columbus landing in the Bahamas in 1492. It has been a federal holiday since 1971, but the North Dakota University System doesn't sanction a day off from classes for neither that day nor Indigenous People’s Day.


Native Americans and activists have protested the holiday, saying Columbus’ time in the Americas has been romanticized and leaves out atrocities he committed against Indigenous people. They have called on the holiday to be switched to Indigenous People’s Day to recognize the history of Native Americans in the U.S.

Several North Dakota universities and colleges have held events to recognize Indigenous People’s Day. At least six public higher education schools in the state also have created statements that acknowledge Native American lived on land where the schools were built.

The NDSA initially asked the university system last fall for a day sometime between Labor Day and Veterans Day to give students a mental health break, Wahl said. Without weekends, that timeframe means students attend classes for 47 days with no holiday, the resolution noted.

The added stresses of the coronavirus pandemic also contributed to the discussion, Wahl said. As discussion continued, the student-run organization decided to propose Indigenous People’s Day as that break. The NDSA passed its resolution in support of making Indigenous People’s Day an official university system holiday 38-1.

The NDSA also passed a resolution that would prioritize funding for mental health programs and services for students in the university system.

Very little was said at the committee about the Indigenous People's Day proposal, but John Warford, a higher education board member who sits on the committee, said mental health is an important student issue. It's unclear if either proposal will go before the full board, but the committee discussed mental health being a priority for its strategic planning efforts.

The NDSA aims to be more inclusive, Wahl said. It is important to recognize the history of Native Americans in the U.S., especially with North Dakota’s Indigenous population, Wahl said.

She also emphasized advocating for education.


“Growing up, we don't always traditionally learn about both sides of the story around the discovery of our country,” Wahl said. “It's really important that people are educated about what goes on, and then take the time to have a day of awareness, remembrance, and do some advocacy around the subject in general, not only what has happened in the past but where we go from here.”

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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