BLACKSBURG, Va. – A drum circle kept the beat as Native American leaders chanted sacred songs of decades past.
The speeches and cultural displays came during a ceremony at Virginia Tech's Drillfield honoring Native American heritage. It marked the first time the university officially recognized Indigenous Peoples Day, adding it to the Columbus Day holiday.
Native American students pushed for this addition, which the school approved earlier this year. Junior Nizhoni Tallas, who grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, said she's proud of their efforts.
“Oh man, it’s a tremendous achievement for Virginia Tech and for the native community here," she said of the recognition.
Students believe one of the goals of the event is to make more Hokies feel welcomed on campus.
"We want to create a community that's more inviting to native and indigenous students," Tallas said.
Now, they feel like their voices are being heard.
“Changing that name, I think, will get a lot of people thinking, what does this mean? Why did we change it? What’s the history behind it?” senior Skyler Adkins said.
Students brought in speakers for the event to talk about their heritage, strength and perseverance.
“We’re here. We’re visible. We’re active. We’re not history," Adkins said.
The students' adviser said she has seen their hard work pay off.
“The students are very passionate about why they wanted to bring Indigenous Peoples Day to campus. They were interested in challenging the Columbus narrative and discourse," Melissa Faircloth said.
The Columbus Day holiday has drawn controversy, and some students would like the celebrations of European settlement to be dropped altogether. These students believe that Indigenous Peoples Day should replace Columbus Day across the nation.
"We shouldn't be celebrating a man who caused mass genocide," Tallas said.
A university spokesman said it wants to recognize both days, and it has not considered dropping Columbus Day, which it says stays in line with its goal of being inclusive.
"By celebrating both holidays, both traditions, we’re being inclusive and not exclusive," spokesman Mark Owczarski said.
The idea of Indigenous Peoples Day goes back to the 1990s, but more cities and groups have recognized it in the last decade.
This year, the city of Richmond is acknowledging it, and Washington, D.C., approved renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.