Indigenous People's Day celebrated in Navajo County

“This is a historic effort that has not happened in the past,” said Dawnafe Whitesinger of the gradual transformation of Columbus Day into Indigenous People’s Day – and a month-long observance of native cultures. “This provides an opportunity for our troubled communicates to be empowered and not remain the marginalized communities they often are. We applaud the efforts that have made this possible.”

In the midst of a pandemic, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors resolved to celebrate the contributions of Native Americans to the nation.

The Apache and Navajo members of the board of supervisors solemnly welcomed the resolution — while acknowledging the complex history of the centuries-long conflict and accommodation between European settlers and the Native Americans.

“This is a historic effort that has not happened in the past,” said Dawnafe Whitesinger of the gradual transformation of Columbus Day into Indigenous People’s Day – and a month-long observance of native cultures. “This provides an opportunity for our troubled communicates to be empowered and not remain the marginalized communities they often are. We applaud the efforts that have made this possible.”

Arizona includes 22 federally recognized tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi and White Mountain Apache — all tree tribes are among the few nationally that have managed to hold onto a large share of their ancestral lands, language, culture and beliefs.

All three reservations have also suffered disproportionately from the pandemic, with death rates two or three times the state’s white residents thanks to a lack of medical care, pre-existing conditions like diabetes and still unknown factors. Still, the pandemic’s a pale reminder of the European plagues that swept the continent in the 1600s, by some estimates wiping out 90% of a once thriving population.

Members of the 573 federally recognized tribes have a life expectancy that’s 5.5 years less than the general population – although studies suggest that when first encountered by Europeans most native American people often lived twice as long as the average white – partly due to a much lower rate of the kinds of infectious disease the Europeans brought to these shores. Even now, Native Americans suffer from much higher rates of liver disease, diabetes, injury, respiratory disease, heart disease and suicide.

The recognition of Indigenous People’s Month also came in the midst of an election in which Native American voters recorded record turnout — playing a key role in the winning margins of Joe Biden, Mark Kelly and Rep. Tom O’Halleran.

“One of the things that I think it’s important to understand is that recognizing indigenous people doesn’t take away from our history of a nation,” said Whitesinger, who played a key role in lobbying the state to declare Indigenous People’s Day.

“One of the things that is important to be remembered is why we have such a great love of our country — to be able to tell the truer story of that history is important and not to take away from those efforts that have come before,” Whitesinger continued. “We want to recognize the efforts of everyone who has made the country what it is and everyone who has been a part of that great history.”

Supervisor Jesse Thompson, a Navajo, added, “what you have said is in our minds as well, particularly as we move forward towards Native Heritage month and into the future. We need to remind each other every so often that we’re here together to do things to respect on another. I’m reminded of what our veterans have done for the land, the people, the government and the Constitution of the United States,” he continued.

Overall, Native Americans have served in the US Armed Forces at about five times the rate of the rest of the population. Some 20% of Native American veterans are women, the highest percentage for any other group. During World War II, Navajo Code Talkers developed an unbreakable code used over the radio in combat. Some 44,000 Navajo served in the military in World War II, earning 71 Air Medals, 34 distinguished Flying Crosses, 51 silver stars, 47 Bronze Stars and five Medals of honor. They often sought out combat assignments and had five times the casualty rates as white soldiers. Native Americans have amassed similar records of service in all of America’s wars.

Thompson continued, “I’m reminded of what Thanksgiving is all about – a day that Europeans landed on this land that was a handshake that took place that to me is very sacred — to respect each other for who we are, how we think and to be able to learn from one another. Thank you for doing that.”

Thanksgiving celebrates the early cooperation and friendship that developed between the English settlers at Plymouth and the Wampanoag village of Patuxet. The English colonists settled at the site of a Wampanoag town, wiped out in the previous two years by smallpox introduced by the first settlers that swept across the continent. The surviving Wampanoag nonetheless welcomed the settlers, helped them through their first harsh winter and struck an alliance. Squanto — a Wampanoag translator who had been held as a slave in England before making his way home – helped the two groups communicate. The first Thanksgiving Feast came about by accident, according to historical accounts. The English fired off their muskets to celebrate the harvest. Hearing the shooting, the Wampanoag sent 90 warriors to help their newfound allies – thinking them under attack. The warriors stayed for the three day harvest celebration.

The relationship between the settlers and the Wampanoag soon turned tragic, leading to misunderstanding and warfare and the dispossession of the Native Americans.

But although the resolution the Navajo County Supervisors adopted “rejects oppression against under-represented groups” and “acknowledges the injustices suffered by indigenous people,” the spirit of the meeting was reverent and open hearted.

Supervisor Daryl Seymore said, “we are a great nation and it’s both the cultures and the history that make us stronger — and that we all fight for.”

Supervisor Lee Jack, a Navajo, said “I appreciate this proclamation. This is something that has been a long time coming. I look forward to the future that we will have better relations and an ability to understand one another. Right now, with this situation we’re in, we’re all coming together, helping each other. That’s what this great nation is all about and we’re all part of it. And with prayers, we will live happily forever.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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