Speech at the First “Indigenous Peoples’ Day - SLC”

Indigenous Peoples are good at speaking and interpreting code. In World War II, our Dine’ grandfathers used the language of the People, Dine’ Bizaad, to send coded messages on the war-torn isles of the Pacific. The heroic valor of those Marines contributed to saving countless American lives, men and women, serving in the armed forces.

Today’s code is a bit different, but we’re just as adept at interpret its meaning. On Twitter and Facebook there are some people who ask, “Why a holiday for Indigenous Peoples even exists? Why not celebrate Columbus and his achievements? Why are the Indians making such a fuss over something as trivial as this? Aren’t there more pressing concerns to be worried about? In fact, isn’t it kind of racist what they are doing? Who are they to talk? Weren’t the Aztecs and the Utes just as bloodthirsty as they purportedly make Columbus out to be? I’ve seen Dances with Wolves and Apocalypto and those Indians were evil. And wasn’t Columbus a Man of God led by the Holy Spirit?”

We’re getting the messages — and we know what it’s code for.

Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day is controversial. But indeed, our very existence as Indigenous Peoples is controversial.

Because recognizing that the survivors of the civilizations that stretched across these continents are still here means that one has to admit that something atrocious occurred here. That indigenous peoples had to become dehumanized in order to be colonized and killed. To be exploited. To steal their lands. That new laws, invented laws, had to be created to justify this whole process, and when the indigenous peoples tried to use those very laws for justice or redress, other new laws were formed or created — because that’s how systemic racism works.

But I am not here to apologize for or justify our existence. And I don’t much care how white people interpret the holiday — whether it’s a time of recognizing an atrocious history or as an existential threat to the inherent goodness of Western Civilization. That is something their community will have to deal with. They must figure out how to deal with their own past. I’m not here as some kind of “indigenized Jiminy Cricket” to help them convert a wooden soul into a human one.

I want to speak some words of hope to my indigenous brothers and sisters:

Never feel as though you do not belong. The Holy People led your ancestors here and you’re supposed to be here. Remember that our peoples have walked, lived, played, warred, died, worked and made love here for thousands of years. We shall remain for thousands more.

Stand strong and stand often. There are too many injustices to ignore that we all have to face at some point. At times they are obvious and horrific, other times, subdued and small. Develop your leadership from an early age to stand strong against the injustices and stand strong for what is right.

Push beyond the narrative the dominant ideology force-feeds you. If we are to listen to the prejudiced drivel that spews from the great ideological propaganda machine, then we must always settle for second-class status, for being the sideshow, the footnote, the supporting actor or villain. Refuse it. Write another story with different goals and different outcomes.

Reject the enticing tentacles of hyper-individualism. You are part of something bigger than yourself though the dominant society would rather see us atomized and divided. Whatever skills you’ve acquired and learned, these can be used to build a future where we thrive.


Fight to survive and fight to thrive.

Fight because anyone else in our position would do so.

Fight alongside your grandparents who navigate the bureaucracies of healthcare.

Fight alongside your children as they learn their ancestors’ language and way of thinking.

Fight alongside your parents who struggle to relearn their culture after years of oppression and systems of education that forced them to forget.

Fight alongside college students who learn the complexities of political, sociological, and legal theories, the white man’s policies and laws, and how to beat them at their own game.

Fight alongside the protectors who stand at Standing Rock and Bears Ears, to protect the sacred and to protect our sovereignty.

Fight alongside your brothers and sisters who have very little left to give after being battered by a society that promises rewards but never provides the institutionalized means by which to attain them.

Fight alongside your cousins against cultural appropriation and our image and likeness used as mascots.

Fight to end the epidemic of our murdered and missing women — our sisters, mothers, and daughters.

Fight for our rights — to live as our Holy People have told us to. An existence based on harmony and balance and love; an existence that rejects exploitation of humankind and mother earth, that rejects mindless consumption.

Fight because we have so much to offer our world and because it’s a fight worth fighting for.

May we walk in beauty before us and behind us. May we walk in harmony above us and below us. In this way will we honor our traditions and blaze the trail of the future.

Thank you.

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