Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day isn’t enough

To better honor their history, activists want “justice, not gestures.”


Flagstaff, Arizona, is part of a growing list of cities attempting to repair their tarnished relationships with Native American communities by recognizing the second Monday in October as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” The process toward formal adoption of the day has been slowed by concerns that recognition will do little to improve either the lives of Native people or their relationship with the city. In short, Native activists and concerned citizens, such as Klee Benally, say they want “justice, not gestures.”

Last year, initial discussions about the event coincided with a widely attended public panel organized by Benally and others at Northern Arizona University. Addressing a packed room of students, faculty and community members, Benally reminded the audience that not long ago, there were signs in the windows of downtown Flagstaff that read, “No Indians or dogs allowed.” Regionally, there is also the legacy of uranium mining, coal mining, poisoned water, collapsed aquifers and forced relocation.

A rally in support of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Flickr user nicholasbross

“We need to address historical trauma from settler colonialism,” Benally said. “We must recognize that Flagstaff is not just a ‘border town,’ ” a term often used to describe Flagstaff, the largest city bordering the Navajo Reservation, the largest reservation in the country. “It’s about occupied stolen lands from Indigenous people,” he added.

Flagstaff also has to contend with its role in sustaining racism. Benally mentioned several examples, including the “cultural genocide that occurs when 180 million gallons of treated sewage is sprayed on the holy (San Francisco) peaks each year for snowmaking.” He also mentioned homelessness, “extreme racial profiling, and the obscenely high rate of Native people arrested each year.” Indeed, according to the Flagstaff Police Department’s own numbers, Native Americans make up just fewer than 12 percent of the population, yet they comprise approximately 45 percent of all arrests. These numbers are mirrored nationally. According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, lack of access to adequate legal counsel and racial profiling have resulted in an incarceration rate of Native Americans that is 38 percent higher than the national rate.

Jeff Berglund, a professor of English specializing in Native American Literature at Northern Arizona University, 
said there were questions Flagstaff should be asking. “In what ways do we as citizens fail our Indigenous brothers and sisters? Should we maintain business deals that infringe upon religious freedoms? What should we be doing in this border town to address the needs of Indigenous families? We should be asking, ‘What should we do to support the first peoples on whose land we work and live?’ ”

All of this begs the question of whether recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day would help Indigenous people. Rather than simply recognizing the day, as many cities have done across the country, Flagstaff Councilwoman Eva Putzova proposed initiating a process, whose first step required city staff to examine and report on how well the city is implementing a Memorandum of Understanding between Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. The collaboration was designed to “achieve better race relations,” but it has largely been ignored since it was signed by the previous mayor of Flagstaff in 2012. The second step would schedule town hall meetings about the city’s relationship with its Native citizens and nearby tribes regarding issues that disproportionately affect Native people, such as political inclusion, homelessness and racial profiling.

Though Putzova and others have been frustrated with how the slowness of the process, she said she wants to make sure it is done right. Putzova has been meeting with Native activists and other concerned citizens to discuss goals for Indigenous Peoples Day. “Only after we are done with these and come up with some action plan to address numerous injustices will we move forward with a vote.” She remains optimistic that Flagstaff will do more that just “recognize” Indigenous Peoples Day in October 2017. 

For Benally and his family, who have long performed traditional dances in front of white audiences in Flagstaff, at the university and at the Museum of Northern Arizona, it’s important that recognition go beyond entertainment. “It seems like, in Flagstaff, sometimes our culture … is only accepted if it is a commodity, if it’s on a shelf, in a book, behind glass. But we’re here,” he said. “Our voices matter. Our cultures matter. Our ways of life matter.”

Kyle Boggs is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He recently graduated with a PhD in rhetoric, composition, and the teaching of English from the University of Arizona. He's a teacher in the writing program at University of Florida.        

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