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‘Reclaiming space’: In Philadelphia, Indigenous organizers call for honoring Native histories

An Indigenous Peoples’ Day event on Monday featured Native activists, dancers, and singers.

By Anna Gustafson - October 12, 2023
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A member of Native Nations Dance Theater performs at Indigenous Peoples' Day in Philadelphia on Oct. 9, 2023.
A member of Native Nations Dance Theater performs at Indigenous Peoples' Day in Philadelphia on Oct. 9, 2023. (Anna Gustafson / TAI News)

PHILADELPHIA, PA — When Mabel Negrete thinks of the future, she dreams of healing.

She imagines decolonized schools — places where the curricula center Indigenous histories — and a world that no longer tries to silence and harm Native people and their communities.

Negrete said she could see that future forming on Monday, when Native individuals and their allies filled Shackamaxon, also known as Penn Treaty Park, to commemorate the seventh annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia.

“We need to raise awareness about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas in particular because there’s no history that talks in a very comprehensive way of who we are,” Negrete, the executive director of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (IPD) Philly, said of the impetus for Monday’s gathering. IPD Philly is a Native-led group that organizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia.

“Some people think this is local, in our context, and the way we need to work. This is not local, because this is Lenapehoking — it takes so many other layers, you know? It’s a very interesting way of thinking about space and actually reclaiming space in history in the communal community,” continued Negrete, an artist, activist and educator who is originally from Chile. Lenapehoking is the name of the historical territory of the Lenape peoples along sections of the Eastern Seaboard.

It is that idea — reclaiming space in history — that people attending Indigenous Peoples’ Day cited time and again throughout the six-hour event that featured Native dancers, singers and activists from Turtle Island, an Indigenous term for North America or the Earth. It’s an idea that, those attending the event explained, means more complete and honest histories of Indigenous people and European colonizers need to be told instead of the narratives filling schools and pop culture that are, at best, flawed and often outright Eurocentric propaganda that perpetuate Native stereotypes and often omit or downplay the violence committed against Indigenous communities.

This idea is core to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which was created to replace Columbus Day and is celebrated on the second Monday in October. At a 1977 United Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Indigenous delegates resolved to “observe October 12, the day of so-called ‘discovery’ of America, as an International Day of Solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.” In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to officially commemorate the day.

A member of Canpatlaneci, an Aztec dance troupe, performs at the Indigenous Peoples' Day in Philadelphia on Oct. 9, 2023.
A member of Canpatlaneci, an Aztec dance troupe, performs at the Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia on Oct. 9, 2023. (Anna Gustafson / TAI News)

Since then, 17 states have adopted a holiday that honors the Native people who have lived in the Americas for thousands of years, according to the Pew Research Center. The New York Times reported more than 100 U.S. cities have also adopted the holiday. Adopting the holiday takes on a range of meanings depending on the place: Some states, for example, have designated a day honoring Indigenous people but do not call it Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day has replaced Columbus Day in some locations, but not all.

Monday’s event marked the third year since Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day an official holiday in the city. Two years ago, President Joe Biden was the first president to recognize the day with a proclamation.

The original inhabitants of what is now called Pennsylvania included the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware, people. Other Native people, including the Nanticoke and the Shawnee, migrated to Pennsylvania and New Jersey following the arrival of European colonizers.

“Through a celebration of art and culture, this annual event provides space for all Indigenous communities in the city to shed light on the strength of our people from 530 years of resistance,” IPD Philly organizers wrote in a press release.

Those “530 years of resistance” are a nod to Christopher Columbus, whose arrival in the Americas in 1492 marked the beginning of European colonizers and their descendents killing or causing the deaths of almost 100 million Indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere in the five centuries following 1492, according to historians. In addition to colonizers killing Indigenous people directly, they also introduced infectious diseases that led to the deaths of millions of Native people. Researchers at the University College London published a paper in 2019 that found European colonizers caused the deaths of about 56 million Indigenous people in the Americas between 1492 and 1600.

Thousands of Indigenous people also died on the Trail of Tears, the U.S. government’s forced removal of tens of thousands of Indigenous people from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to land west of the Mississippi River after the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

“One of the things that needs to change is we want people to understand we’re still here,” said Janis Stacy, an IPD Philly board member who is of Dakota and Cherokee descent. “The stereotypes they have aren’t right. The stereotypes aren’t who we are. They need to learn about us. They need to understand that we’re here; they need to understand the culture instead of just assimilating it or taking it and calling it theirs — appropriating it.”

Negrete and Stacy explained that events like Indigenous Peoples’ Day allow Native communities to forge important bonds with one another and inform non-Native people about Indigenous culture and history, including state-sanctioned violence against Native people.

“Growing up, I was told not to say that I was Native to anyone,” said Stacy, who lived in Indiana and Kentucky as a child. “A lot of people figured it out. I’m older, so I remember segregation; I still have some trauma from that. My family’s descendents of the residential school system, so we have the trauma from that. So that’s intergenerational trauma that we carry forward.”

Indigenous Peoples' Day organizers Janis Stacy, left, and Mabel Negrete gather at Shackamaxon, also known as Penn Treaty Park, on Oct. 9, 2023.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day organizers Janis Stacy, left, and Mabel Negrete gather at Shackamaxon, also known as Penn Treaty Park, on Oct. 9, 2023. (Anna Gustafson / TAI News)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and made to attend Native boarding schools, including in Pennsylvania, as part of the U.S. government’s efforts to erase Indigenous culture. Thousands of children attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for example; there, school officials renamed the students and refused to call them by their Indigenous names. Carlisle school officials also made students change their tribal clothing and hairstyles. An ongoing federal investigation into the United States’ Indian boarding schools has found that hundreds of children died at the residential schools, including at the Carlisle institution, and that number is expected to grow the longer the investigation continues.

Part of healing from the trauma of genocide, boarding schools, and other state-sanctioned violence comes from Indigenous people being able to spend time with other Native individuals who understand their pain and their joy, organizers said.

“It’s family, so we reunite; we connect our families together across the various nations,” Stacy said of Indigenous people attending Monday’s event. “So if we can do that, we can start making change.”

In addition to organizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia, IPD Philly works throughout the year to empower and connect the area’s Native communities, both inside the city and with Indigenous people throughout the world. One of the group’s top priorities includes partnering with Pennsylvania politicians to implement a mandate that K-12 schools teach Indigenous history. Those history lessons, the organizers explained, would be created by Native people and groups.

Stacy emphasized it’s crucial for Native people, and specifically in Pennsylvania the Lenni Lenape people, to lead the creation of the new curricula.

“That’s where the change comes. It doesn’t come from other people doing it for them,” Stacy said. “It comes from empowering them to get it done.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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