Harris was speaking at the National Congress of American Indians 78th Annual Convention, held this year in Portland, Oregon.
She called on Americans of all backgrounds to confront the history of European colonizers who attacked tribal people upon discovering the Americas in the late 15th Century.
The remarks came a day after Christopher Columbus Day was marked across the United States, over 500 years after Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola.
Since 1934, “every October the United States has recognized the voyage of the European explorers who first landed on the shores of the Americans,” Harris said. “That is not the whole story, that has never been the whole story.”
The European explorers “ushered in a wave of devastation for tribal nations, perpetrating violence, stealing land and spreading disease,” she said.
“We must not shy away from this shameful past, and we must shed light on it and do everything we can to address the impact of the past on native communities today.”
She went on to say, “Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty, to be unemployed, and often struggle to get quality healthcare and to find affordable housing. This persistent inequity, this persistent injustice is not right. And the pandemic has only made it worse.”
In recent years, the annual holiday has been referred to as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and campaigners have called for the Columbus Day to be scrapped due to his connections to colonialism.
Historically, Columbus has been accused of enslaving a thousand Indigenous people on Hispaniola and of torturing many more, as well as allowing the transatlantic slave trade to start, and of the devastation of Indigenous nations.