On second Indigenous Peoples Day, more work to be done

Celebrations at Daybreak Star marking the first Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2014. (Courtesy photo by Jonathan H. Lee)
Celebrations at Daybreak Star marking the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2014. (Courtesy photo by Jonathan H. Lee)

Last year Seattle grabbed the entire nation’s attention by establishing the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The City Council and School Board both voted unanimously to celebrate the culture and contributions of Native Americans — on the same day that the federal government marks as Columbus Day.

So what’s in store for Seattle’s second Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Were last year’s resolutions more than just a symbolic gesture?

Matt Remle, Native American liaison at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, who actually wrote the city council resolution passed last year, says he’s been impressed by the local and national impacts.

“The national response has been amazing in the sense of how many communities and individuals have taken this up,” Remle said, reporting that people in towns and cities across the country reached out to him asking for advice on establishing Indigenous Peoples Days in their own city.

Earlier this month, Portland and Albuquerque voted to observe the day starting this year, and Olympia did the same in August. More than 20 other cities have established an Indigenous Peoples’ Day as well, Remle said.

“One response that has just been phenomenal is the sense of empowerment — communities are saying across the country — Native communities specifically that, ‘Man, we can do this here.’”

Today’s holiday will be celebrated starting at 10 a.m. with a march in downtown Seattle, a talk by Ojibwe activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke, and cultural performances at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Discovery Park. Hundreds of demonstrators also gathered near Pike Place Market on Sunday to call for an end to federal celebration of Christopher Columbus.

Remle, who is Lakota, says Indigenous Peoples’ Day has brought a Native perspective to the city that was missing previously.

“I’ve been in Seattle since the late 90s, and I’ve never really seen Native-specific issues be even talked about from City Council or the Mayor’s office or anybody…” Remle said. “So I think it was kind of like a door being opened and bringing in the Native community, Native voice, Native perspective on a whole host of issues.”

During the protests over Shell’s Arctic oil rig, for example, City Council members were suddenly paying attention to issues important to Native people.

“You saw Council members getting in traditional canoes, Kshama [Sawant] and some others, with Duwamish or with Lummi nation, getting in their canoes and understanding it isn’t just this rig parked in Seattle, but this is a drilling rig docked in Seattle on the traditional fishing grounds of the Duwamish people, and it’s being sent to the traditional fishing grounds of Alaska Native villages.”

Native Activists in a canoe follow Shell's Polar Pioneer drilling rig out of Elliott Bay in June. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Native Activists in a canoe follow Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig out of Elliott Bay in June. (Photo by Alex Garland)

The resolution passed by the School Board last year also meant a meaningful curriculum change for Seattle Public Schools. The new curriculum, called “Since Time Immemorial,” was developed by Denny Hurtado and Tulalip Senator John McCoy, and incorporates Native history and culture into instruction. As of May of this year it’s now mandated statewide.

Sarah Sense-Wilson (Oglala, Sioux), is the chair of the Urban Native Education Alliance. She says she still has concerns about how the curriculum will be integrated into Seattle classrooms, and whether teachers have the social knowledge to do so effectively. She still thinks Seattle Public Schools could better serve Native students, who face significant challenges in the education system.

Sense-Wilson says the real progress achieved as a result of Indigenous Peoples Day may be slow.

“It’s complex, it’s difficult, and it’s not anything that’s going to be switched on overnight — it’s going to take time to develop,” she says, arguing there are larger issues to worry about than celebrations, though she adds that she doesn’t want to diminish the work of activists like Remle who were instrumental in creating the day.

“I have some opinions about the huge celebration and resources that go into celebrating when our kids are struggling and suffering, dropping out and ending up in the legal system or on the street or in foster care,” Sense-Wilson said. “We have bigger, greater issues that we have to contend with on a daily basis, not once a year.”

Remle seems to agree. He says the adoption of Indigenous Peoples day is only the first step toward raising consciousness about Native issues. This year he is proposing a new resolution calling on Seattle to acknowledge the trauma caused by boarding schools for Native children in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

If Seattle City Council votes yes on the resolution (scheduled for the docket at 2 p.m. Monday) it will become the first non-tribal government in the United States to acknowledge the boarding school era, when around 100,000 Native children were sent to boarding schools and forced to abandon their culture and assimilate to white society. Many faced psychological abuse, torture and rape. Remle points out that the boarding schools fulfill the Geneva Convention’s definition of genocide.

He says the resolution isn’t just about acknowledging a historical wrong, but also about recognizing the roots of many of the problems facing the Native community today, including homelessness and high drop-out rates.

As he sees it, Indigenous Peoples Day is one step forward, but more needs to be done.

“Colonization never ended, and that’s a narrative that we must continually put out there,” Remle said. “So efforts around Columbus Day, or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, around boarding schools, these are just ongoing efforts in the larger 500 years of indigenous resistance.”

Those efforts haven’t been welcomed by everyone in Seattle.

Last year Italian American activists criticized the adoption of Indigenous Peoples Day, calling it an insult to their cultural community.

Martin Nigrelle, president of the board of directors of Casa Italiana, a Seattle Italian culture organization, said the Italian community has no plans to protest the celebrations this year. But he says they’ve become aware of the need to make their culture more visible in the city.

“Columbus day didn’t represent the celebration of one man, it just has his name on it,” he said. “It was about the celebration of all things Italian and all the Italian heritage that we have.”

Though Italians have a long history in Seattle, Nigrelle says many are assimilated into mainstream white society. For some, the introduction of Indigenous Peoples Day to the city changed this. 

“To a certain degree it galvanized some of the Italian American community to come back together and realize that if our culture isn’t recognized then that’s probably on us to take better efforts to make sure that we’re still present in the community.”

“I think that what we’re concerned with now is about how our culture can be recognized and celebrated.” he said. “Not about choosing a lightning rod figure, not about taking actions that would pit one group against another. Seattle’s a city that’s big enough to celebrate two cultures at once.”

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