Sunrise gatherings, dances and speeches mark celebration of culture on Indigenous Peoples Day

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Events across the country — including a sunrise gathering in Minneapolis, a statehouse rally in Maine, a celebratory march in Seattle and traditional dancing, music, and food in Alaska and Arizona — marked celebrations of Indigenous Peoples Day.

The ceremonies, speeches and performances in traditional regalia Monday came two years after President Joe Biden officially commemorated the day honoring “America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today.”

At a gathering in Phoenix where dancers performed in traditional Aztec clothing, Sifa Matafahi said it was an opportunity to “pay respect to Indigenous cultures … to reflect on our past and history, while also acknowledging our cultural presence.”

A celebratory march was held in Seattle and a sunrise ceremony at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. In Minnesota, about 150 people, including the governor and lieutenant governor, attended a sunrise prayer and ceremony at Bde Maka Ska, a lake surrounded by parkland on the south side of Minneapolis.

“Today, we recognize our ancestors and predecessors who really laid the foundation for us to stand,” said Thorne LaPointe, an organizer, who is Sicangu Lakota. “And we will always recognize our elders who are here and those who have gone on before us, who really kicked open the doors in their time, nationally and internationally.”

Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have holidays honoring Indigenous people, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of them celebrate it on the second Monday of October, pivoting from a day long rooted in the celebration of explorer Christopher Columbus to one focused on the people whose lives and culture were forever changed by colonialism. Dozens of cities and school systems also now observe Indigenous Peoples Day.

“I think it just look a long time because we are Indigenous People — we always have to fight for recognition as we have been since the first ships arrived,” Matafahi said in an interview at the gathering in Phoenix.

In Augusta, Maine, several hundred people celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day by rallying outside the State House in support of a Nov. 7 statewide vote that would restore language about the state’s obligations to Native American tribes to printed versions of its constitution.

Maulian Bryant, Penobscot Nation ambassador and president of the Wabanaki Alliance, said once people understand the importance to Native Americans, they will support it like they did when towns, and then the state, enacted Indigenous Peoples Day.

Bryant recalled the successful grassroots conversations that took place about the legacy of Columbus, whose arrival brought violence, disease and suffering to Native Americans.

“We want to honor the true stewards of these lands,” she said.

In South Dakota, dozens of people marched to a memorial at a park honoring Native American children who died at the Rapid City Indian School in the late 1800s before it was closed in 1933.

Others who gathered in Anchorage, Alaska, said a celebration like the one there Monday would have been unheard of six decades ago.

Gina Ondola, a Dena’ina Athabascan, said she graduated from East Anchorage High School in 1962 with only four or five other Alaska Natives in her class and certainly no Indigenous culture club.

“We didn’t learn much about our history,” she said. Instead they were taught how white Europeans who came to North America were slaughtered by Native Americans.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t feel too much pride in being Native. I always heard about ‘drunk Natives,’” said Odola, who was wearing black gloves with red and white beadwork to represent her family’s colors.

“It feels good for me to be able to feel pride in who I am,” she said.

The Anchorage celebration included Alaska Native dance groups, traditional Alaska Native game demonstrations and a student wearing a “Molly of Denali” costume. The PBS show was the nation’s first children’s series to feature Indigenous leads.

Abigael Hollis, a freshman film student at the Institute of American Indian Arts, was among those who attended a powwow at a downtown plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It brought together Native American dancing groups from throughout the state and beyond, as well as Native American jewelers, potters and weavers who sold artwork at outdoor stands.

“It’s celebrating the fact that my ancestors lived to have me, and that we’re still around and that we can celebrate each other and love each other,” said Hollis, who is of Cherokee ancestry and wore traditional dress, including a coming-of-age necklace made of buffalo bone and glass beads.

New Mexico, which is home to 23 federally recognized Native American communities, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day through legislation in 2019.

The Santa Fe festival began with a blessing by dancers from nearby Tesuque Pueblo — an acknowledgement that the city stands on the pueblo’s ancestral lands, said Caren Gala, who heads the Santa Fe Indigenous Center and helped organize the powwow.

“We wanted to pay respect and homage to that — that this is their land,” said Gala, who is affiliated with three pueblos, Laguna, Taos and Nambé.