Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day
“The powers who controlled the United States didn’t want the people to know their history. If the people knew their history, they would realize they must rise up.”
-Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead
I gripped the two pages tightly in my hands. There was no way I could stand up in front of this crowd to read my poetry. I was frightened of criticism and the result of my spoken word in the eyes staring back at me. It was the Real History of the Americas event held at the Fort Lewis College ballroom on Columbus Day.
Columbus Day, or what is also known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, was celebrated differently among my Native peers. Everyone would dress up in their traditional regalia and gear up for the Real History of Americas that was an all-day event with food, music, history, and an open mic. I wanted to read my poetry because each piece reflected upon history and my identity as a Navajo woman.
My first poem, entitled “They Tell Me,” is about a little Navajo girl, who was taken to boarding school. It tells about the changes she had to make in her appearance such as cutting her hair, changing her name, wearing different clothes, and learning to never speak her language. To conclude the poem, this little girl makes all these changes in order to return back to her homeland once she’s done with school—a promise made by the federal government.
When I wrote that poem, I was taking a Native American history course at Diné College taught by Professor Bradley Shreve. I very much enjoyed that class because he instructed in a way of storytelling. He did not sugar coat any part of the real history between Natives and the federal government. He was very passionate about his teaching and it also inspired me to write this poem when we discussed the boarding school experience. The major influence was the photos he showed the class of the school children dressed up in their uniforms. All of their eyes looked so empty, and that angered me.
My second poem, entitled “Identity Theft,” declared that Native Americans can be imitated and their identity can be bought by the popular culture with jewelry and regalia. I added my own personal conflicts such as being called “naked Indian” and how all of a sudden wanting to have “tribal-inspired” materialism was cool and how, just like that, Native Americans are no longer real people.
I looked up to the crowd of students and I heard applause. It was a sense of relief, not to just read these words but for each of them to understand my frustrations. To share my work and to be complimented individually was a heart-warming experience. Other students shared their work and it made me feel unified with them in that we could all bring our voices together to tell our stories and truths.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was a few weeks ago and I hope all of you tribal college students took time to celebrate by dressing up, participating in events, and feeling good to be Native American. Every day is a good day to feel Indigenous, and it’s important that we all rise up and together. Respect our existence. I will end with a small verse of poetry on behalf of Indigenous Peoples’ Day:
To rise and stand under a fixated life, and to dread the untold
History of a lost traveler, claiming an undiscovered country,
Puzzling the inhabitants by conquest.
Thus ignorance of truth makes cowards of us all.
The Native Revolution casts red thoughts and power.
With this regard their flags are down, arms turn awry,
And lose the name ‘savage.’
Shiana Nez is a graduate of Diné College and author of the TCJ Student blog, Red Storyteller.
Marmon, L. (1991). Almanac of the Dead: A Novel. New York: the Penguin Group.