‘We were never discovered’: Indigenous Peoples Day celebrates the history and successes of their communities

The day serves as a reminder that Arizona’s Indigenous people are still here and thriving

By: - October 7, 2022 1:25 pm

Photo by Danny Upshaw via Cahokia/Indigenous People’s Day Phoenix Fest

As people gather at events across the U.S. to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, organizers want them to remember it’s not just a day of celebration, but also a reminder to everyone that Indigenous people are still here and thriving.

“It’s to counter the colonial narrative that this land was discovered. We were never discovered,” said Laura Medina, the coordinator for Indigenous Peoples Day Arizona (IPDAZ) and co-founder of Matriarch Ways. “We’ve always been here. We’ve always had our own civilization that was different than the colonizers.”

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Indigenous Peoples Day typically falls on the second Monday of October, and it’s the day that honors the Indigenous communities that have lived in the U.S. for thousands of years. It is commonly becoming a replacement for Columbus Day, which celebrates the Italian explorer who made contact with the Americas in 1492.

Why Indigenous Peoples’ Day is replacing Columbus Day in many places

“Indigenous Peoples Day is about celebrating the indigeneity of people all over the world,” said Melody Lewis, co-founder of Cahokia, an Indigenous-led creative space in downtown Phoenix. 

“This includes Indigenous people belonging to non-federally recognized tribes, First People of other countries, and the 574 federally-recognized tribes in the United States; 22 of those tribes are here in Arizona,” Lewis added.

South Dakota became the first state to officially recognize Native Americans’ Day, commonly referred to as Indigenous Peoples Day in other parts of the country, in 1990. South Dakota has one of the largest Native American populations in the country.

Now, more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. Those states include Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In Arizona, it is common for cities and tribal nations across the state to have their own celebrations in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Still, the state does not recognize it as a holiday and does not replace Columbus Day.

Phoenix has recognized Indigenous Peoples Day since 2016, but only as an annual commemoration event. The city’s recognition did not create an official city holiday or replace Columbus Day.

“There’s been big headways in challenging that narrative,” Medina said as more people start recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day and hosting events to celebrate it. 

“Indigenous people’s narrative directly threatens the validity of colonization,” she said. “Colonization depends on our erasure as Indigenous people.”

IPDAZ is challenging the erasure of Indigenous communities by hosting its annual Indigenous Peoples Day celebration that features Indigenous topics, artists, panels, music, and food. 

Medina said the IPDAZ planning committee brings a full weekend of events with land acknowledgments, movement celebrations and community building from Oct. 8 through 10. All the events are free, family-friendly, and drug/alcohol-free zones.

We were never discovered. We’ve always been here. We’ve always had our own civilization that was different than the colonizers.

– Laura Medina, coordinator for Indigenous Peoples Day Arizona

IPDAZ is a grassroots organization hosting Indigenous Peoples Day events since 2015. Medina said they honor the work of the grassroots organizers who led them before her.

The 2022 IPDAZ gatherings kick off on Oct. 8 with a trash pickup along the Rio Salado Trail on 2801 S. 7th Ave., which Medina said is a way of giving back to Mother Earth. 

The celebration continues on Oct. 9 at Steele Indian Park with a Day of Movement. There will be a spiritual run, and the last half mile will be open for walkers or those who need help to lay down their prayers.

“It’s very important to lay down our prayers, to ensure the protection of our people,” Medina said, and IPDAZ worked with O’odham community leaders to host the spirit run.

All of the events are happening on the ancestral homelands of the Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh peoples.

“It is very important for us to center O’odham people and make sure that they are seeing themselves in this (celebration),” Medina said. 

On Oct. 10, IPDAZ has a day of activities, starting with a conference from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., featuring self-care, sovereignty and land preservation sessions. Afterward, there will be live art,  music, dance, food, creative expression and more.

Medina said seeing more people coming out to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day and participate in events across the valley is excellent because it shows “the power behind our need as Indigenous people to come together and challenge this narrative together.”

IPDAZ is not the only event happening in the Phoenix area. 

For the first time, an Indigenous Peoples Day Phoenix Fest is happening in downtown Phoenix on Oct. 10 from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. It is being hosted by Cahokia, the downtown Phoenix art and creative space, which opened its doors on Indigenous Peoples Day in 2021.

“The festival will provide an opportunity to see and hear accurate representation of the wide diversity of Indigenous cultures, languages, and expressions of art,” Lewis said.

The founders of Cahokia partnered with the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, The Churchill, NDN Collective, Native Guitar Tours, Seven Layer Army skateboards and many others to create a celebration honoring Indigenous People.

Collaborating with other businesses to shut down roads in downtown Phoenix for the Indigenous Peoples Day Phoenix Fest goes along with Cahokia’s mission of Indigenous place keeping and taking up space, said Mike Webb, the artspace cultivator for Cahokia. 

“We need to be in the middle of downtown taking up space, amplifying Indigenous voices, and making sure people know that the Indigenous community is here,” Webb added. “We want to create safe spaces in urban areas for the Indigenous community to thrive.”

The festival will have a vendor market, food trucks, skateboard demos and competitions, a community zone, Indigenous film screenings and musical performers.

“It’s our time, and we have the right connections, the right collaborators, and the right energy just to be able to really blow this day up and make sure it’s known,” Webb said.

To amplify the civic engagement, out-of-state organizations NDN Collective and New Mexico Community Capital will provide additional resources during the event.

For full details about the event, visit the Indigenous Peoples Days Phoenix Fest website.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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