In 2014, the cities of Seattle and Minneapolis launched a nationwide movement of cities, towns, counties and States passing Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolutions to replace the federal holiday, Columbus Day.
Prior to 2014, only the city of Berkeley had passed an Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution having done so in 1992 on the 500 year anniversary of the Columbus voyage. In 1990, the state of South Dakota passed Native American Day to be celebrated on the second Monday in October.
Post 2014, over 60 cities, Tribes, states, and counties have passed resolutions proclaiming the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The movement to address the racist federal holiday Columbus Day by attacking it on a local grassroots level has been extremely effective. Empowered local Native communities, and supporters, have worked tirelessly to both reclaim humanity and help to chip away at the settler colonial narrative that has canonized a man who committed both wide-spread genocide and mass slavery in the “New World”.
Having been the lead organizer in the Seattle effort, I was asked often, “Why push for the name Indigenous Peoples’ day? Why not Native American Day?” The answer was simple. One, we wanted to honor the work of our parents’ generation who first led the efforts to abolish Columbus Day when they took the proposed Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the United Nations in 1977, and secondly we wanted to recognize all Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere who have faced settler colonization from European Nations.
Since then, the term “Indigenous” has become more widely used, and misused, in the everyday lexicon.
Most often I hear it misused in a couple of different ways.
First, the dismissive crowd who like to shout we’re all Indigenous, or we’re all native, when expressing their opposition to Native led movements and liberation struggles. This group reminds me, and has echoes of, the same crowd that likes to shout “all lives matter” when being dismissive of the Black communities efforts to raise awareness and combat state sanctioned police violence and brutality.
The second typically comes from non-Native peoples on the left who like to express that everyone is Indigenous as if in some sort of self-affirmation that they too deep in their historic genealogy have ties to a belief system of protecting “Mother Earth” and all of creation. Which is odd given that you don’t need some sort of deep mysterious connection to the “ancestors” and “spirits” to know and understand that it is pretty much in everyone’s self-interest to not destroy what’s giving you life.
Clearly, there’s lot of confusion around that term “Indigenous.”
The term indigenous is a specific reference to Native populations who continue to live in their homelands under settler colonial occupation.
According to the United Nations, “Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.
Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.”
The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues states, “It is estimated that there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Spread across the world from the Arctic to the South Pacific, they are the descendants – according to a common definition – of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.
Among the indigenous peoples are those of the Americas (for example, the Lakota in the USA, the Mayas in Guatemala or the Aymaras in Bolivia), the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Saami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand. These and most other indigenous peoples have retained distinct characteristics which are clearly different from those of other segments of the national populations.”
Further, while Indigenous peoples only represent 4% of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples are caretakers of more than 20% of the Earth’s surface which sustains 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity and Indigenous peoples represents 90% of the world’s cultural diversity.
While many peoples have faced colonialism, conquest, slavery and displacement not all peoples have faced and continue to live under settler colonial occupation. So no, we are not all indigenous.
Settler colonialism is a distinct form of imperialism in which the settler colonizer seeks to dispose of Native populations through mass genocide in order to access lands and resources and in doing so (re)define themselves as the “Native” population. Think of comments like, “We are one Nation”, “We are all Americans”, or “We are a nation of immigrants.”
Settler colonialism seeks to claim the lands, languages, cultures, spiritualties, intellectual thought/property, and bodies from Native populations to be used for settler colonist consumption.
Indigenous thought and intellectual property
Early European colonizers left Europe having lived under Monarchies as their form of governance. While in pursuit to establish itself and separate from European Monarchs, the likes of George Washington and Ben Franklin turned towards the Iroquois Confederacy to learn from them, and from their Great Law of Peace in particular, as a different form of governance.
Senate resolution 331 states, “the confederation of the original thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced…by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”
Despite the historic truth that the U.S. Constitution and Democracy was influenced greatly, and nearly modeled after the Iroquois Confederacy, settler colonialism allowed for both taking of Indigenous knowledge and re-branding it as an uniquely Western (read white) institution to be gifted on the world.
During the battle over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline one constant counter narrative pro pipeline supporters espoused was the false claim that the pipeline did not cross tribal lands.
While NoDAPL supporters would rightfully counter the argument by pointing out the geographical boundaries of the Oceti Sakowin as defined in both the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie treaties, opposition, the media, and general public simply bought into the claim that it didn’t cross Tribal lands.
Settler colonist defining what is, and what isn’t, Native lands.
Another recent example would be the proponents of a copper mine being proposed in Oak Flat, which is historic and sacred lands to the Apache. While the Apache tell of the historic use of those lands down to the ceremonies that were, and continue to, take place there, opposition, the media and the larger general public simply dismisses the Apache narrative and claim that the lands were/are “public lands” (read owned by colonial settlers via their colonial government) for exclusive use by colonial settlers.
These narratives are, of course, rooted in settler colonial thought that allows itself to simply claim dominion over the lands of Native (Indigenous) populations and later assign, or reassign, what is or is not Tribal lands as it pleases.
“First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. Then they wanted our mineral resources and, to get them, they tried to take our governments. Now they want our religions as well. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.” ~Janet McCloud (Tulalip)
Our origin stories define to us and establish for us our roles and responsibilities in how we are to live and conduct ourselves. As Lakota and Dakota peoples, we were given specific instructions and specific ceremonies, many tied to certain geographies, to conduct for the purpose of benefiting not only our own peoples, but all of creation, ceremonies to conduct as our responsibility towards all relations.
This belief is one held by Indigenous populations throughout Unci Maka, earth. Different peoples conducting specific ceremonies for the well-being of all creation.
While historically many of peoples the world over may have had similar beliefs and instructions, not all did, and due to generations of slavery, assimilation, genocide, indoctrination, and colonialism these original instructions historically held throughout the globe have been lost.
Euro colonial settlers in particular, have gravitated towards the theft, often outright or in some hybrid combination, of Indigenous people’s spiritualties and ceremonies. While the colonizer actively seeks to eliminate the “savage” beliefs of Native populations through conversion to Christianity, other settler colonizers seek to claim traditional Native ceremonies and beliefs as their own.
Often the theft is done for the profit motive. Western capitalism, with its ideology rooted in colonialism, ingrains the belief that anything, and everything, is for sale.
It is not uncommon to find Native ceremonies re-branded and sold on the market place. When new age and spiritual hucksters are confronted by Native peoples they often try to deflect claims of cultural theft by stating, “everyone is Native”, or “these ceremonies are for everyone”, and of course the ever popular excuse that while on some vacation seeking spiritual liberation a so-called medicine person, or shaman, passed along “ancient knowledge” to them to then in turn spread the gospel to the rest of the world.
Again, one of the goals of settler colonialism is to eliminate Native populations and reassert itself as the true “Native”.
While some may see it as harmless to state that everyone is Indigenous there are real danger behind such broad stroking of the term.
Stating that everyone is “Indigenous” has potentially negative social, political, and economic implications for Native populations. Land, resources, lives are still under assault by settler colonizers not just here, but for Indigenous peoples globally.
The goals of settler colonialism are the same today as they were since 1492, remove and/or eradicate Native populations to access land and resources for the benefit of settler occupying populations. Period.
Stating we are all “Indigenous” absolutely works to eradicate the very real lives histories and realities that Indigenous populations have and continue to face.
So again, no, not everyone is Indigenous, we’re all children of Unci Maka absolutely, just not all Indigenous.
These frameworks in the ways in which settler colonialism manifest itself historically to today are absolutely crucial to understand for social movements, allies (whatever that means), and for peoples whom are truly seeking liberation.
by Wakíƞyaƞ Waánataƞ (Matt Remle- Lakota)