Dressed in traditional garb, adorned with drums, and enjoying a meal of salad and fry bread at Seattle City Hall, the First Nation peoples celebrated the second annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day, formerly known as Columbus Day, on Monday.
An hour later, the Seattle City Council would unanimously pass a resolution acknowledging the city's role in the deep psychological damage inflicted on Native Americans, particularly in relation to United States Boarding School Policy.
“This is more than symbolic,” American Indian storyteller Roger Fernandes said. “The myth that’s been told for 500 years in America is not true. We need to challenge that story that says this country was discovered, that the people here were inconsequential, just a part of manifest destiny.”
Last year, Seattle received media attention when they changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. More cities and states, such as Alaska, have followed suit this year.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant presented the resolution to the council and promoted the event through social media.
“I have had the privilege of working with activists to push for a groundbreaking resolution aimed at educating those who do not know, and beginning to heal the wounds created by the horrific United States Indian Boarding School Policy, which was in effect from 1869 to the 1960s,” Sawant wrote on her blog.
The city council resolution references the ways in which, at boarding schools, children were “shamed for being Native American; punished for speaking their tribal language; banned from engaging in any traditional, spiritual, or cultural tribal practices; shorn of long hair and stripped of traditional clothing; … and physically, sexually, and mentally abused.” The resolution, referencing international law, classifies these events as cultural genocide.
Deep, generational wounds were expressed by the children and grandchildren of boarding school students who spoke during the council’s public comment period. Matt Remle, a Lakota activist and Marysville School District educator, has been heavily involved in indigenous peoples recognition.
“Our language wasn’t taught to us, our spirituality was ‘the devil’s work,’” Remle said. “Ceremonies are the tradition that you’d turn to to heal, but if you’re forbidden from that, of course you’d turn to addiction. It wasn’t until I realized that, that I really understood my family for the first time.”
Patricia Allen is a student at the University of Washington School of Social Work. Her father was at a boarding school from ages 3 to 13, she said during the comment period.
“He never taught me the Tlingit language,” Allen said. “He didn’t want me to go through the same trauma he did, but I had my identity stolen because of that.”
The city’s resolution doesn’t require the city to provide funds or act in any tangible way, but First Nation activists believe acknowledgement is a first step towards making amends.
“I think the next step would be having indigenous people work with their elders on identity development, really pushing policies for people to be able to access their culture, and be able to access indigenous forms of knowledge that they’ve been deprived of in the school system,” Allen said.
While the attendees ate, environmental activist Winona LaDuke spoke of the responsibility of indigenous peoples to protect natural resources for the future. She drew laughs from the audience when she told the story of camping in a teepee on the Washington Mall, and being offered a ride in a Tesla.
“That’s basically what I want,” LaDuke said. “I want to walk out of my teepee into a Tesla. I want to walk elegantly into a post-fuel economy.”
When the resolution was passed, city hall erupted in a cheerful display of dancing, whooping and drum beating.