The ancestors of the original inhabitants of what is now known as America are living members of our community, especially in Los Angeles, which is home to the second-largest population of indigenous people in the United States.
For those who can trace their genealogy on the lands of America back to a time before its currently mapped borders were ever drawn, today’s recognition by the city of Los Angeles of Indigenous Peoples Day — rather than Columbus Day — is a profound step forward toward acknowledging their stories and their continued existence as part of America.
“This change has an important impact on indigenous people in Los Angeles, who will no longer suffer the ongoing harm created by Columbus Day — with its implicit, and at times explicit, celebration of the genocide of our peoples,” said Shannon Speed, director of UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “In its place we will have an acknowledgment that we are still here as peoples and we will celebrate the unique contributions that Native culture makes to life in Los Angeles.”
UCLA’s community of indigenous faculty and students is small when compared to the campus population at large. But their sense of community and support for one another is potent. And, their numbers are growing. Enrollment of students from indigenous backgrounds is up 48 percent this year, from 33 to 49. UCLA also regularly employs around a dozen faculty members of Native background, many of whom teach in the American Indian Studies interdepartmental program.
UCLA will celebrate with an event in Bruin Plaza on Tuesday, Oct. 9. that is sponsored by the American Indian Studies Center. The activities include singing, refreshments and a screening of Native short films in Kaplan Hall.
Mitch O’Farrell, the first person of Native descent to serve on the Los Angeles City Council, was a leader in the effort to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
O’Farrell is a member of the Wyandot Nation from Oklahoma, and he led the charge to make the citywide change, with the support of people from UCLA. Several members of UCLA faculty were part of a community coalition in favor of the change and they attended city council meetings to testify in support of the move. They provided background historical and other information to staffers of O’Farrell’s office and did media interviews and wrote op-eds.
The first citywide recognition of Indigenous People’s Day will be a daylong event on Oct. 8 sponsored by O’Farrell’s office, featuring a sunrise ceremony, a 5K run, parade of nations, Native American powwow, panel sessions on topics related to Native Americans and the community, a fashion show, and a grand finale that will include a performance by critically acclaimed Native American rock group Redbone.
“This is not only good for indigenous peoples,” Speed said, “it is great for everyone in Los Angeles, setting the historical record straight.”