ccording to our calendars, today is officially Indigenous Peoples’ Day. According to the internet, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is “a holiday that celebrates the Indigenous peoples of America” — those who were here pre-colonial contact, and their descendants. And according to Afro-Indigenous youth advocate Mesiah Ebony Burciaga-Hameed, “Every day is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” I agree.
Below, four as-told-to stories from four different Native folks in an effort to underscore that point: A new mother shares the story of naming her baby; an artist meditates on indigenous futurism; a producer explains the importance of Native narratives; and a youth advocate connects learning your roots to protecting the planet. These are tales told with care, as love letters to the earth and those who inhabit it — valuable lessons for today, and every day after.
Combating the erasure that Native people face on a regular basis begins with storytelling, listening and seeking out what has been obscured from our vision — read on to do just that.
Aru, 23, is an artist and organizer currently based in Brooklyn, NY.
I am Aymara — my people, my family, my nation are located specifically in between Bolivia and Peru, and I am based in Brooklyn. I was born in southern-ish Utah. The land in Utah is really similar to my ancestral homelands which are mountainous — the Andes — rocky, red, brown, so it always kind of felt like home. Then I moved to North Carolina which is super green — the land is lush. Segregated, but beautiful. Then I moved to New York. I’ve always felt a deep connection with the desert and the rocks and the mountains and also the city, strangely enough.
I think a lot of people say, “The city? No. How could you live in cities? They’re so horrible.” But there’s something to the fact that there are so many beautiful people living and making homes here; making the best of it, maintaining connection with their surroundings. Living our truths in the city is really important to do.
I do that by developing a relationship with the land, finding a place to be in the city to offer prayers. I like to wake up early and walk to the park, find a tree, sit with it, offer tobacco, pray, be quiet. Of course I hear the fire trucks sometimes, and I hear the people sometimes, but the prayer is still there. The connection is still there. The intention is still there, the intention to build a relationship with something bigger than me. With something older than me.
I think meeting your neighbors is also important because New York City is currently going through that phase of colonization called gentrification, which causes people to isolate themselves from existing communities. This takes away from the actual relationship building that is supposed to happen. Capitalism — and the city, because it is a heart of capitalism — teaches us that we need to be independent. But like my homeboy always says: “We are not independent, we are interdependent.” So reach out to your community members, get to know your neighbors, go to their birthday parties, bake them things… build long-lasting relationships that will encourage depending on one another.
I do that through my work at the American Indian Community House, which is an organization that works to uplift Native folk living in the New York metropolitan area. We do a lot of cultural events and cultural planning because Native folk like to gather. What I do specifically is the political engagement, the activism.
The majority of our community members are artists that come to the city to pursue their careers or students that come to the city to pursue a higher education. When they leave their reservations and their ancestral homelands, one of the ways they stay connected is through doing political solidarity work with the community house. We end up doing a lot of targeting of financial institutions that are responsible for the destruction of the earth and Native lands — that’s kind of what I head.
Something that I’m noticing a lot is the Native people who are resisting genocide and colonization by creating things like beautiful music and beautiful murals and beautiful prints and just creating this beautiful world that we wanna live in. I think that’s kind of indigenous futurism, you know? Creating the world that we want to see in the face of these horrible acts of violence that are happening.
Indigenous futurism is also using the tools that we got from western imperialism — the terms and technology, mixing all the new things that were introduced to us with traditional ways of being to create this healthy, beautiful, sustainable world. It’s like a mindset, too. Like, I see a lot of folks focusing on healing. Right now, a lot of my personal healing comes through art — either spinning records or making music. I’m specifically involved with a group that’s been praying together with the same intentions of healing — healing our generations and future generations. Through that prayer of healing we started making music together. And now, a few months later, we’re getting ready to release some stuff, which I’m really excited about.
Something else I’ve been noticing more and more is the negativity that still exists around being Aymara; back in my ancestral homeland, it’s still not cool to be Native. People want to be American — they buy into the American Dream type stuff. I try to combat that by openly being proud to be Aymara, and I want to encourage all folks to reconnect with where they come from and reconnect with their ancestral homelands — reconnect with their ways. For some folks it’s harder to find those ways because of colonization and because of violence and genocide, and for some folks it’s easier, maybe they’re born into it. But we do all come from the earth, even if we don’t know our exact creation stories.
I’ve heard many creation stories and I think that each time I hear one there’s truth in it. One of the first times that I heard one was when I was in Salar de Uyuni, which are these huge salt flats in Bolivia. My two other friends and I had just hitchhiked in the back of a salt truck with these farmers, these families that were going to the middle of the flats to harvest salt.
We went with them and we worked really hard and then, at the end of the day, they told a creation story that had to do with the two mountains that were surrounding us. I remember hearing that story and then looking at the mountains and feeling really grounded and connected and confident. Like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. I know exactly where I’m going — anywhere I go is right.
Language is also an important part of actively participating in making sure our culture continues — it’s family, it’s song, it’s how we communicate. Right now, I only know a few words in Aymara. And if I don’t learn the language, if I don’t teach it to my children, that’s a whole generation losing out. So for me, reclaiming indigeneity is really about understanding my role in making sure my people continue to live on.
Jade, 28, is a senior producer for Indigenous Rising Media currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I’m Diné on my dad’s side and Tesuque Pueblo on my mom’s side. Born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a kid, I went to a private preparatory school on scholarship. There is an all-Native school there but I wanted to challenge myself and step into a different type of environment.
I ended up being the only Native kid in this prep school for a while. Whether I was conscious of it or not, I definitely experienced internalized oppression. I didn’t want to talk about my culture, I didn’t want people to know where I was from — I had a kind of fear of being seen as whatever stereotype people think Native people are.
I wasn’t able to really embrace and reclaim my identity until grad school. A person who is now my friend and mentor and colleague, Eriel Deranger, gave a talk on reclaiming indigeneity at this conference. I heard everything I needed to hear, have affirmed, and said aloud; it was an amazing turning point for me. Ever since then, I’ve just been working in the movement, so to speak, to amplify stories and create original content for various communities.
I manage a project called Indigenous Rising Media, which was born out of the necessity to control our narrative and be able to have a platform to tell our truths without being filtered or trying to fit within the framework of non-Indigenous platforms. A part of my big mission with this project is to have it be a space where we are fully represented. Representation, to me, is more than just balancing risk scales or bringing about diversity. I think it is actually a really huge part of Native and indigenous peoples manifesting better futures for ourselves.
Mainstream journalism has a way of being colonial and we have often felt that our stories are sensationalized — journalists only want to write about them when it’s a hot moment; when our people are being victimized or when there is violence happening. Obviously there are important moments, like Standing Rock, but we also are here every other day of the year. The work and the stories that are taking place all the other times also need to be highlighted. Indigenous Rising Media aims to produce more robust coverage and amplify the stories.
Did you know that Native women experience extreme levels of violence? I see people report on this with a very surface level kind of analysis but they fail to make the connections between this epidemic and larger societal issues. For example, it’s definitely super connected to resource extraction like building pipelines and fracking. These projects require bringing in labor from outside reservations or outside indigenous communities, which typically means that there’s an influx of non-Native men into these Native communities. And what ends up happening with that influx of non-Native men is the rates of violence, the rates of human trafficking, of drug use — they all go up.
I think the media generally fails to make those connections and I would love to see more in-depth storytelling on that issue. It could even be brought back to the Supreme Court: If we want stronger policies that protect indigenous women, is this court gonna give us that?
The connection here between, say, Kavanaugh, and reclaiming indigeneity is the necessity of deep reflection. For me, reclaiming indigeneity has been a process of deeply looking at my lifestyle and decisions and how I live and communicate in this world. Two years ago, I made the decision to move back to my ancestral homelands in order to be closer to my community. Not only to work with and support my communities, but also to be closer to my traditions, languages and culture.
One of the beautiful things that happened when I moved home, that I didn’t quite anticipate, was this reconnection to land and body through food. As I reconnected with this place, I started eating foods that are native to my people and these lands. Integrating more pre-contact foods in my diet, I noticed a shift in energy and this very strong feeling of nourishment in my soul. Beyond those physical manifestations of reclaiming and reconnecting with indigeneity, I’ve also opened myself up to the journey of decolonizing my mind and that process has brought up so many questions around cultural norms and ways of thinking.
Building sisterhood, for instance. Colonization and patriarchy have had this way of pitting femmes against one another, but for the past few years, I’ve really loved working with and uplifting my femme counterparts and embracing sisterhood by sharing and celebrating our knowledge as womxn. Reclaiming our matrilineal lifeways. I think by doing this, we’re doing really strong work to decolonize and destroy patriarchy.
I really want to put a ton of energy and intention into reclaiming my own indigeneity and then supporting our communities to thrive and to be able to continue our life’s ways, continue our culture, embrace it and have it be celebrated for more than how we’ve been stereotypically seen, fetishized or romanticized.
Mesiah Ebony Burciaga-Hameed
Mesiah, 23, is a youth advocate currently based in the occupied Lene Lenape territory known as New York City.
I am an Afro-Indigenous (Mexica, Lakota and Quechan) Two Spirit, gender-fluid earth seed. I was raised by two incredible social activist powerhouses that have kept me pretty involved in the movement since the day I was born. I’m currently exploring healing and what indigeneity means to everyone who considers themselves humans on this planet.
Right now I’m in North Dakota helping some of my family from The Standing Rock Reservation and offering support to the water protectors facing time in prison. I do a lot of youth advocacy work around supporting our generation and recognizing what next steps we need to take in terms of reclaiming and decolonizing without shame and guilt. Most recently I’ve been doing a lot of healing with the white nation and talking about how the white nation needs to play catch-up on healing and reclaiming their roots — that’s where I’m at right now.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a good day to think about the original land stewards of the territory that you were born in and grew up on. It’s a good day to learn about the original people of Turtle Island, what we now call the United States of America. It’s also a good day to do some self-reflection around the roles that our families have played in the genocide of the Nations and people that call the United States home. And just as important: It is an opportunity for us to look within and honor our ancestors and their traditions. If there is a space inside that’s empty and needs to be filled because we don’t know who we are or where we come from because things have gotten lost on the way, it’s a good day to start laying the groundwork of remembering, and a good day to ask for help.
The reason why learning about indigenous culture is so important is the indigenous tribes know the original language of certain territories. They are one with the land. They know what the plants named themselves and what the waters want to be called. They know the songs and the prayers to keep life fruitful and earth in balance. All of that needs to be restored. No matter where you are on this planet you are indigenous to earth. It is extremely vital to learn about our ancestors and the way that they took care of the earth as we see all of our natural resources being abused by corporations and fought for through wars over oil and money. It is time to take responsibility and reclaim our indigenous roots.
When I was 13, I started to teach myself Lakota and taught my little brothers basic Lakota language skills. I started to take more seriously how I identified to the outside world. I don’t know what tribe I’m from in Africa because of colonization and slave ships, but I trust Spirit enough to guide me and have been able to do a lot of healing just on an ancestral level. My mom has been really good at keeping me connected to my African roots and giving me a good understanding of their spiritual practices.
Currently, I’m healing a bunch of generational trauma with my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother grew up on a reservation in Yuma, Arizona and ran away when she was 13 to live with her family in Los Angeles — her sisters who had left a few years before. Because of the trauma that she experienced on the reservation with a dysfunctional family and the loss of her mom at a really early age, the way that she relates to our culture is trauma-based and fear-driven. So a lot of my work here in this body has been helping restore love into our culture through the eyes of my grandmother. I work to remind her of the power of who she is and the sacredness of the color of her skin and our songs. I’ve been able to heal two generations back and offer ceremony back to my family, offer songs back to my family and offer connection back to our matrilineal line.
I think that a lot of it started with my interest in family trees when I was about nine years old. I had access to a computer more frequently and I started looking at census records, got an understanding of how they work, and started building family trees for fun. Now it happens to be one of my secret skills.
I find that if you are a person of color, there will be a year, usually around 1830, that you lose the paper trail of your family. It becomes really hard to find anything. But in the last few months I’ve been assisting a lot of my friends that are from the white nation in building their family trees, and sometimes it only takes 20 minutes for me to trace their lineage back to the year 1200. It’s really amazing, and helped me realize that the white nation can help people of color find paper trails — because everything was logged for the white nation, it’s really easy to find their information, which can be used to find other, less logged information. This can help with healing.
We’re all just trying to reclaim and learn how to take better care of the earth the way that we once did. I’m really thankful for my indigenous culture, which has given me access to such beautiful creation stories, which have taught me the way that we formerly lived in harmony with this planet. Because it just shows that it will be possible again. I also am super grateful that I’m young because it supplies me with the ability to create change and make sure that I’m showing up in a bigger better way for the future generations, for my little brothers and my little sisters, for all of the babies out there.
Taylor, 27, is an artist and mother currently living in Syracuse, New York.
My name is Taylor Bonaparte, my tribe is Mohawk, and I’m an artist. I do paintings and make jewelry and I do some sewing. Right now I’m actually making regalia for Tsiowistoh, my daughter — she has to wear a nice little traditional outfit for the upcoming Harvest Ceremony when she will officially get her name put through before the tribe.
She was born 10 months ago. It was Thanksgiving, so we were at my best friend Hannah’s house in Calistoga, California when my water broke.
I’m Wolf clan, and that’s important for this story because the Wolf clan mother in my tribe gives the names to the kids for all the Wolf clan. I didn’t have a name for my daughter when she was born because I still had to talk to the clan mother and give her my birth story — that’s how she picks the name. You can’t pick the same name as someone else, and there’s a book full of available names, but it’s not updated every time someone picks a name. So I had to communicate with this person to get a name and it wasn’t gonna happen in the time that we were at the hospital.
It would have been so much easier to give her a “normal” name instead of a traditional name, but I hadn’t thought of any… so I already felt like it was weird. And then the hospital staff brings in the paperwork — I had to fill out the birth certificate — and I was like, “We don’t have a name.”
I felt pressured because they were like, “You’re not going to name her?”
And I said, “No, I’m going to wait.”
Up until the last hour before we left they kept asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to name? Because it’s going to be harder to add one once you leave the hospital. We take care of all the paperwork for you here, but once you leave…” They told me that her original birth certificate would be blank and that we had to do an affidavit, and that it would be a huge nuisance to get her name on her birth certificate. But I didn’t have a name for her, so I couldn’t do it.
Normally, people have their babies in New York, close to the clan mother, so they can just go to her and simply tell her the birth story. But I couldn’t do that, so Tsiowistoh didn’t have a name for two months. Finally, I just asked my uncle to give me a name. And he said, “Tsiowistoh — it’s ironworker slang for ‘she brings the gold.’” Mohawk men are known for being ironworkers because they balance really well and can climb up high. My dad was an ironworker.
I learned that no one had that name, meaning she could have it, but the clan mother was like, “I don’t think that’s a good name for a baby.” She told me that Tsiowistoh just means “it’s cold.” So I asked everyone I knew what they thought Tsiowistoh meant — there’s so much discrepancy in the Mohawk language. If you ask someone older who knows the older language they might say, “It means ‘something shiny.’” A lot of other people are like, “Oh, it means ‘cold’.” So there are going to be people who think that it means something else, but we know what it means.
She also has a middle name and a last name — Tsiowistoh Genice Jordan — although a lot of people who are really traditional would just give their baby one name, just the first name. But I thought it was important that she have her dad’s last name because she’s not just a little Native baby. Her dad is black; she’s both of us, and I don’t want her to ever feel weird about being mixed.
Her traditional name is important because it identifies the people she belongs to: The Mohawk Wolf clan. And it’s important because it ties her directly to the Creator. It gives her voice directly to the Creator, so she can be heard throughout her life.
When people will casually ask, “Oh what’s her name? She’s so cute,” and I say, “Tsiowistoh,” they don’t know what to say. They’re like, “What?” But it’s important for me to make people use our language, because then they can’t forget that we still have it. That we’re still here.
Anyway, she has her name now but it hasn’t officially gone through in front of the whole tribe — that will happen at the Harvest Ceremony, on Children’s Day, when all of the children who were born that year will get their name officially put through. We will travel three hours from Syracuse up to the Akwesasne Reservation, where my mom lives. There’s a longhouse up there where all of the ceremonies happen. Everyone dresses in their ribbon dresses, ribbon skirts, the men dress in ribbon shirts. I will stand up there while Tsiowistoh gets named, my mom and dad will be up there, and it’s just showing everybody in the whole tribe that this is who the baby comes from; this is her family. (Except her father can’t be there, because it’s a sacred traditional place, and only Native people are allowed in the longhouse during ceremony.)
After that, the name will be officially hers.
Illustrations by Mia Ohki. Ohki is a Metis-Japanese-Canadian artist, currently living and working between Edmonton, Alberta, and Langley, British Columbia. She recently completed her first solo art show in Edmonton titled I Know What It Looks Like.