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On Indigenous Peoples Day, We Fight for Our Existence — and Our Liberation

Our memories are not sound bites.

A Water Protector looks on at burned tractors at the Standing Rock camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on October 12, 2016. (Photo: Irina Groushevaia)

It is as predictable as any other annual US holiday or commemoration: National mainstream media devote sound bites to Columbus Day and the meaning of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the “New World,” while Columbus Day sales hit the stores. Meanwhile, op-eds and letters to the editor register Indigenous people’s objections to Columbus as worthy of commemoration. In recent Octobers, it seems, asking Indigenous people what they think of Columbus Day has also become a sound bite.

In the last few years, however, increasingly perceptible is an Indigenous resolve to refuse to accept the American exceptionalist narrative that the United States is a nation that embraces multiculturalism. In fact, it is still common practice today to deny that Indigenous peoples were the first victims of the US’s genocidal policies, and that those surviving Natives, once militarily subjugated, were then subjected to ethnic cleansing, which is more commonly known as “assimilation.”

Once Indigenous reactions to nationalist US forms of remembrance — whether they be histories, national event reenactments, or monuments and statutes — are registered, apologists for the US, having acknowledged “two perspectives” or “two sides,” intimate that a level of understanding has been reached, and that we might move to some sort of reconciliation and healing. However, as the growing Indigenous liberation movement has emphasized, reconciliation and healing cannot take place until the US stops celebrating Indigenous genocide. As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz makes clear in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, since its founding, the US and its settler citizens have habitually committed crimes of inhumanity against Indigenous peoples in order to lay claim to their lands and territories, and have systematically laid waste to these lands as they extract natural resources with little regard for the treatment of Mother Earth.

Further, as the current chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, I know firsthand that the US was one of four nations that initially voted against the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when the General Assembly adopted the declaration in 2007. The US was also the last country to reverse its vote. Any complaints Indigenous peoples lodge against the US for human rights violations in the international arena are quickly denied by the US, and its leaders point to the US Constitution as proof that it is a nation that embraces equality. However, Indigenous peoples’ struggles against settler states like the US are older than the Constitution — as old as the day Columbus disembarked from his ship and stepped onto Indigenous lands. They continue today: For example, the Navajo Nation has taken its complaint of the desecration of sacred sites — in a specific case, the use of wastewater to make snow on the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona — to the Inter-Commission on Human Rights.

For Indigenous peoples, our memories are not sound bites to be brought out once a year alongside the supermarket shelves stocked with Halloween costumes and candies.

Indigenous resistance against foreign invaders is steadfast in our memories, and in the present moment, it takes many forms, including Indigenous peoples calling for cities and towns to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Berkeley and Portland passed resolutions to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. Two years ago, Albuquerque, New Mexico, followed suit and declared October 7, 2015, Indigenous Peoples Day. More recently, Salt Lake City named the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, as did Farmington, New Mexico.

Navajo leader Moroni Benally, who was a lead organizer for the efforts in Salt Lake City, said, “The resolution is a symbol with power and meaning in acknowledging a wrong done to Native Americans. It represents a step towards correcting a history that has been sanitized.” Navajo leader Chili Yazzie, who praised Farmington, New Mexico’s recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day, said he hoped relationships between the city, white citizens and Navajos would improve.

Some critics declare that the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is merely window dressing, and does not address Indigenous grievances with real change in our lives. However, they fail to realize that Indigenous peoples who lead these movements are community leaders and organizers who fight for Indigenous liberation every day.

The Indigenous Peoples Day movement’s demand that Indigenous peoples be recognized in urban spaces is significant because we are often supposed to have no presence and no voice in the urban US. Rather, Indigenous Peoples Day lays claim to urban spaces as Indigenous, as today, more than 60 percent of Native peoples live in these cities and towns. Native peoples, relocated off their homelands to urban spaces through such federal policies as termination, retain strong ties to homelands, and with respect for their cultures and traditions.

The movement for Indigenous People’s Day is also part of a long Indigenous tradition of activism. Contrary to what is often said of young Native peoples who live in places outside of designated Native lands, they are not lost or in danger of losing their traditions, for it is the young people, urban and diverse, who honor the struggles of their ancestors. Indigenous Peoples Day is a day to celebrate and remember that both Indigenous resilience and Indigenous struggles are rooted in the earliest histories of our ancestors’ resistance to cycles of colonial invasion. It is also a reminder that the pursuit of sovereignty and self-determination is international in scope. As Lakota historian Nick Estes asserts, Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations are “part of a long history of resistance, Indigenous internationalism and solidarity with other oppressed peoples.” They are movements with an international reach, as Estes explains: “In 1977, the International Indian Treaty Council, the international arm of the American Indian Movement, called for the global end of the celebration of Columbus Day and declared instead the International Day of Solidarity and Mourning with Indigenous Peoples. The UN Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid, and Colonialism passed the resolution, with the support of many organizations, such as the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization, who recognized that the devastating legacies of European colonialism and African slavery had to be addressed in the Americas.”

In response to a Columbus Quincentenary in 1992, and as a result of Indigenous protests, the UN General Assembly declared in 1994 an International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and the Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which began in 1994. The second Decade was declared in 2005, and the UN adopted UNDRIP in 2007. Indigenous peoples are most often understood as citizens of the US, an assumption that does not take into account that we are citizens of our own respective nations. Although our nations are cast by the US as “domestic dependent nations,” our people act like nations, much as our ancestors did.

After more than 500 years of ongoing settler invasions, Indigenous peoples remain vigilant, and in the present moment, we take up the struggles of our ancestors. Those same Native peoples and their allies who demand Indigenous Peoples Day are also the ones demanding justice for themselves and their relatives who bear the hardships of settler colonialism, including poverty, hunger and homelessness. They are LGBTQI people who resist intersecting oppressions. They are the ones facing down the monster of capitalism as fracking once again destroys their lands and their people. They are the ones calling for accountability and responsibility for the abuse and mistreatment of Native women, children and our multiple-gender relatives who endure some of the highest rates of violence against them. They are the ones attempting to address the toll that alcohol and drugs have taken on our communities. They are the ones drawing upon their ancient wisdom and healing knowledge for their people. They are the ones inspired by the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. They are the Water Protectors.

Indigenous peoples are fighting for the rights of our people to exist and dream of Indigenous liberation.

As the US landscape now blatantly displays, there is a surge in a US nationalism where people of color, women, LGBTQI and Indigenous peoples are experiencing violations of their civil and human rights, and these violations are perpetuated and authorized by the state. Indigenous Peoples Day, in these deeply unsettled times, celebrates our voices, our presence, our bodies in the streets, our scholarship and our writings, and becomes another occasion to refuse to be silent about sustained violence against Indigenous peoples.

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