Lawmakers and Arizona residents celebrated Indigenous People’s Day Monday as more states and cities have been officially ditching Columbus Day in favor of the celebration of native people.
Five states and Washington, D.C., have done away with Columbus Day, although it still remains a federally recognized holiday and since 1992 many Native American groups have pushed to have the holiday changed.
Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Cameron, said she plans next year to reintroduce a bill she supported this year that would change the holiday in Arizona. Peshlakai is a member of the Indigenous People’s Caucus at the legislature.
“He (Columbus) should not be celebrated for his role in the genocide of countless native populations,” Peshlakai said in a written statement. “I am looking forward once again for the opportunity next session to right this terrible wrong.”
Other members of the Indigenous People’s Caucus made similar statements, and used Monday as a time to celebrate their culture and also reflect on the holiday itself.
“We all come from some place and we all have ancestors,” said Laura Medina, who coordinated an Indigenous People’s Day celebration at Puente Human Rights Movement’s headquarters near the state Capitol.
It’s the fifth time Medina has helped organize the event, which she said is aimed at letting indigenous people celebrate who they are and teach non-indigenous people about the cultures of the people who were here before them. However, she stressed that everyone is indigenous in their own way.
The celebration started in 2015 as a small gathering that only filled one room, but has now grown into an event with vendors, a live DJ, food and art displays.
“It’s for our community,” Medina said.
Prior to the event, a group led by Arizona State University Students marched from ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus to the event.
Led by Lance Sanchez and Kayla Silas with the ASU Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, the march included people of all ages holding signs representing their tribes and certain issues pertaining to the Native community.
One of the main issues that became the focus of chants, signs and slogans of the marchers was the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, often referred to as MMIWG.
In Arizona, more than 25 percent of all Native women murders go unsolved, according to a previous analysis by the Arizona Mirror. Additionally, about 1 in 3 Native murders go unreported to the FBI.
A task force aimed at studying the problem that will bring possible legislative fixes is set to have its second meeting on Oct. 24.
“The task force was the first step,” Sanchez said, adding that working with the community will be the next big key to solving the crisis.
Silas echoed those sentiments, adding that she hopes the task force focuses on community engagement. Both Silas and Sanchez also said education will be key.
“Most people still think we have a small population,” Silas said, adding that misconceptions are abound in the Native population with non-Native people.
Sanchez recalled a student in one of his Native American studies classes who thought there were no Natives left.
“Do people still think we live in tipis?” Sanchez said, adding that finding a way to break that barrier to educate non-Natives on Native issues is key to finding solutions to issues such as MMIWG as many are unaware of the issue to begin with.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 5.7 million Native Americans nationwide and 425,000 in Arizona, the third most in the nation, behind only California and Oklahoma.
“A shift in paradigm, a shift in consciousness is what is going to take to change things,” Medina said. “Too many people see us as disposable.”
Silas also hopes the task force tackles how agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI and tribal police departments communicate and share information.
In the task force’s first meeting, issues of how these agencies speak – or more specifically, don’t – speak to each other was a major point.
Victim advocate Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya stated during the task force’s first meeting that many tribes have differing criminal codes. For instance, some have different laws, or even no laws, for sexual trafficking, and investigating these crimes can get even more complicated as well depending on the level of the crime.
Depending on the crime, tribal police may be able to investigate just themselves or they may have to notify the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
“We need better collaboration,” Imus-Nahsonhoya said.
The Ak-Chin Tribal Police have one homicide in the FBI records which has not been cleared and the Tohono O’odham Police reported 33 murders from 2006 to 2016 but solved only 2 of them, the data shows. The Fort Apache Police Agency reported 91 homicides from 2006 to 2016 and solved only one.
Medina suggested that Native communities begin organizing a network outside of what the task force and other groups are working on to help victims and others.