October 11 marked the fourth annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Los Angeles, celebrating Native American histories, achievements, and culture.
But much work remains to be done across the city and the country.
“People in Los Angeles have lost a lot of their [indigenous] connections for so many generations,” Karras Wilson, the former director of Native American student outreach and recruitment at USC, said.
Wilson, Quechan/Cocopah, believes that the struggle for Native Americans nationwide started when they were displaced from their homes. That was achieved through laws such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which forced Native Americans to leave behind their reservations and traditions..
Wilson, who has lived on and off his native reservation, counts himself among the lucky ones to have retained his native culture. But with that also comes the many Native Americans whose way of life has been displaced and neglected.
In recent years, an effort has been made to reintroduce Native American culture in the United States.
For instance, Joe Biden became the first president to issue a proclamation in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and, locally, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences issued a land acknowledgement describing the university’s “presence on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Tongva people and their neighbors.”
Acknowledgements such as these are one step, but they also beg the question: what comes after that?
“The institutions that have profited from these lands for so long, they really owe the [Native American] people something in return,” Philip Ethington, a geographer and the chair of the USC Dornsife history department, said. “If they can’t get the land itself back, they can get some of the proceeds that have grown from the land.”
One local politician trying to make a difference is Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, the first Native American to serve on the Los Angeles City Council. He is a member of the Wyandotte nation.
O’Farrell introduced the initiative to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day locally in 2017 and has been a mainstay at previous celebrations on the second Monday of October.
Currently, he is seeking to change the Los Angeles city flag and seal to accurately represent its Native American past. The seal currently references the Spanish, Mexican, Californian, and American governments but makes no reference to the people that inhabited Los Angeles initially.
O’Farrell introduced a bill seeking those changes one day after Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year. He also wants Los Angeles to formally apologize to Native American tribes and to rename the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (I-10).
“Together, we will move forward into a brighter future, propelled by a spirit of reconciliation and with a resolve to bring equity and justice to Native American communities in Los Angeles and beyond,” O’Farrell said in a press release.
Tok Thompson, a professor of anthropology at USC, argues that these sorts of measures must be taken nationally.
He points to the dispute over the Black Hills in the midwest, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the United States had illegally appropriated the territory from the Sioux Nation. The Sioux Nation refused the $100 million awarded in reparations, wanting the area back instead, and still has no control over the land.
“I think there’s a lot more than pretty words,” Thompson said. “We could start taking concrete actions. First of all, we should honor the treaties that we do have.”
And even through all of these steps, the concern remains that Native American history and traditions are being lost.
Wilson worries that the term indigenous, such as in Indigenous Peoples’ Day, takes away from the individuality of each tribe with their own languages, traditions, and culture.
“[Indigenous] is considered an inclusive, one size fits all,” he said. “A one size fits all is stereotyping, and that’s very dangerous.”
That individuality, Ethington says, is one of the paradoxes of Native American life which has always been extremely local and, yet, diverse. But for all of the concerns, he believes that the stakes are higher than just one word.
“What’s really at stake is decolonizing [Native American] culture, and decolonizing the land,” Ethington said.