Gov. Northam makes history by proclaiming Indigenous People’s Day

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Tess Weinreich, Executive Editor

Since 1937, Columbus Day has been recognized as a national holiday that celebrates Christopher Columbus, the explorer who “discovered” America. But in the 83 years since, much has changed in the way we view history. The US is reckoning with the fact that colonization in the Americas was intrinsically a genocide –hardly a point of honor in our national history. 

With Governor Northam’s proclamation last Friday, Virginia became the newest of 15 states to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of or in addition to Columbus Day, reflecting a nationwide movement to acknowledge and commemorate the people whose land this was before colonizers arrived. 

When we step onto Potomac’s beautiful 95 acres, especially this week, let’s take time to appreciate the Tsenacomoco people who lived on and stewarded the land before us. Our campus wasn’t always ours and the first peoples who lived on it should also live on in our memory. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Tsenacomoco were not a single tribe, but a political alliance of around 30 distinct Algonquian-speaking groups. Their land spanned from the James River to the Potomac, encompassing much of northeast Virginia, including McLean and the 95 acres Potomac School occupies today. The Tsenacomoco used the two rivers at their border to facilitate trade, travel, and warfare, cultivating a thriving agricultural community.

When English settlers arrived in 1607, the “paramount chief,” who ruled over all Tsenacomoco, attempted to subsume them as a subject tribe. But contact was violent from the start, and a series of wars ensued between the Tsenacomoco and the English. In 1646, with the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War, all tribes were declared subject to the English King. The once-flourishing Powhatan community quickly disappeared as survivors were forced to either adopt the new Anglo-normative way of life or move on from the land that was rightfully theirs. 

For the first time in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I wish you all a meaningful and reflective Indigenous Peoples’ Day.