Indigenous People's Day 2021

Gaby Nagel, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, plays a Native American flute near the Fayetteville Trail of Tears memorial marker Monday as part of the 17th annual Indigenous People’s Day walk from the Arkansas Union to the marker.

Around 40 UA community members commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday with the 17th ceremonial walk from the Arkansas Union’s Multicultural Center to the Trail of Tears memorial marker located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The "Benge Detachment" of removed Cherokees camped where the marker is while on the Trail of Tears in 1839. The forced removal of Native American people from their homelands on the Trail of Tears is one of America’s greatest tragedies, according to an Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan read at the end of the walk.  

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first observed in Fayetteville in 2004, after UA professor Dick Bennet formed OMNI Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology and recommended the UA community celebrate the day, Jordan said.

Students and faculty who attended the walk spoke about how impactful it is that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is observed on the same day as Columbus Day, a day many see as honoring a genocidal colonizer responsible for millions of indigenous deaths. 

Jamie Black, president of the Native American Student Association, thinks everyone, including herself, was raised to recognize the holiday as Columbus Day and not Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she said

“Being indoctrinated into the mindset of (Christopher) Columbus being this great explorer and you know, having him portrayed to be this incredible figure, and then learning the truth about the genocide and the horribe things that he did,” Black said. “And then realizing that people are wanting to use the state to celebrate him. It’s really incredible that we have this day now to claim it, and now it’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And it's a day where we can celebrate and we can remember.”

Eris,  a UA digital media specialist, had not been to any previous walks, but she saw that it was happening and thought attending seemed like the right thing to do, she said.

“Anything to eclipse Columbus Day,” Eris said. 

Jessica Shearman, a junior, learned about the walk in an email from Fay Jones School of Architecture Dean Peter MacKeith because they are currently working on a related project, she said.

“We’re just doing kinda a lot of design work for justice and equality for all communities and healing spaces, I mean kinda like this,” Shearman said.

Native American Student Association vice president Jessica Walden said the ongoing tradition is a big step for the university and state in showing recognition to minority groups, despite a checkered history of not doing so. 

“Because we’re on native land and the fact that there’s a lot of things that are going really unrecognized by the university is very, I don't know what the best word to use is for that, just kind of, it’s sad,” Walden said. “Some of the things are going unrecognized so I think this is a big step, not even for just the university, it’s a big step for Arkansas. With the mayor coming out to proclamate, this day is huge.” 

Walden thinks the support for Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the UofA has grown year after year, she said.

“I mean, I think it’s definitely gotten bigger because when I started college, like no one would talk about (Indigenous Peoples’ Day),” Walden said. “Especially with the turnout, this turnout was amazing.”

Recognizing Indigenous People’s Day helps individuals stay aware of the issues that have affected and continue to affect indigenous people, including the long list of unsolved indigenous missing persons cases and the legacy of the residential school system, said Native American Student Association treasurer Alex Davis. 

Davis has many family members who experienced the trauma of living through the boarding school system, in which indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in government schools intended to assimilate them and stamp out their native cultures, she said.

“And it’s so amazing to feel all of this emotion, I would say, in one day even though it’s not just one day,” Davis said. “It’s obviously for the rest of our lives that we have to deal with the bad history that comes with it. But just having this day to celebrate kinda makes it more aware of what issues are happening."

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