More than 60 people, from 6 weeks old and older, wove their way through Fort Lewis College during a solidarity walk Monday, the first of many college events celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.
Around the country, 15 states and more than 150 cities and towns have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day. This year, FLC used the day’s events to raise awareness of the national crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous individuals. For students, the events were an opportunity to celebrate community, healing and advocacy.
“I came out here to show support for the Indigenous community … to show that, even though we are different and we all come from different tribes and backgrounds, that we can come together,” said Melvin Sisto of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and treasurer of the student organization Wanbli Ota.
Indigenous Peoples Day shifts the historical holiday away from Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America and focuses on Native American, Alaska Native and Indigenous cultures – the first inhabitants of the Americas.
The FLC Native American Center organized several events to celebrate the holiday, including the solidarity walk, a screening of the film “Dance Me Outside,” a round dance and more.
During the solidarity walk, students carried signs calling for more attention to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
In Canada and the United States, Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by violence. Murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native American/Alaska Native women in the United States, according to a 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute report. In 71 cities, the report found 506 cases of missing and murdered women.
“Personally, I know three women on my reservation that have been murdered or were missing and were never found till they were actually dead,” said Tanor Foote, a second-year student of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, after the college’s solidarity walk.
Data are difficult to gather and the number of cases is likely underreported. This year, New Mexico and Wyoming launched task forces to investigate the crisis. U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently focused on addressing the issue at a law enforcement conference on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation near Ignacio.
“We face a lot of different walls and barriers when it comes to receiving justice,” Foote said.
Many students said they came to the day’s events to raise awareness about the crisis. Some came to represent ancestors or community members who could not participate themselves.
During the walk, students wore traditional regalia from their individual tribes. The diversity in dress helps fight the stereotype that all Native Americans have the same culture and traditions. Students felt a sense of community and enjoyed the opportunity to learn about multiple tribes’ traditions and cultures.
As FLC moves into the future, Simon Chief, assistant director of the Native American Center and a member of the Navajo Nation, said he hopes Indigenous Peoples Day helps the school’s Indigenous population feel connected to the FLC and Durango communities.
“All of today’s events are just bringing together Indigenous students and Indigenous communities to have a space where they feel comfortable,” he said. “Hopefully, it creates confidence in them in embracing these identities in the future.”