For many, Indigenous Peoples Day has been a long time coming.
For others, it still has a long way to go.
Santa Fe celebrates Monday’s holiday with a daylong celebration downtown that organizers believe will help cement its place both in people’s psyches and on calendars that once denoted “Columbus Day.”
But they also acknowledge that while New Mexico has been a leader in recognizing the contributions of Native people, the day is a reminder that work still needs to be done.
“One by one you hear of cities around the country changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day,” said Caren Gala, director of the nonprofit Santa Fe Indian Center, which will have a booth on the downtown Plaza as part of the celebration. “And that’s a good thing, because people need to learn about our history as told by our people.”
She smiled at the thought that perhaps one day soon, no one in America will celebrate Columbus Day.
“I hope so,” she said.
Indigenous Peoples Day was celebrated through the weekend and will culminate in an event Monday on the Plaza that will include a morning blessing and performances throughout the day.
Gala said attendance and participation in the Plaza festivities have grown since 2017, though she said organizers have not been taking count of the crowd size. More than 200 people were in attendance early Sunday afternoon as members of the Mountain Star Dance Group from Picuris Pueblo performed.
Kam Buhler, who is from Hong Kong and now lives in Wisconsin, said as a first-time visitor to Santa Fe, the celebration was “beautiful in showing off the culture; there’s so much to learn here.”
In April, New Mexico joined seven other states in changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. The Santa Fe City Council approved a resolution in 2016 to change the name and scope of the holiday.
That vote came just weeks after a public clash between Native and Spanish cultures during the Fiesta de Santa Fe, when raucous demonstrators disrupted a ceremonial reenactment of Spaniard Don Diego de Vargas’ reconquest of the city in 1692.
Christopher Columbus, who landed in the Americas in 1492, was credited with the “discovery” of the continent, despite the presence of Native people long before his arrival.
Emily Haozous, a volunteer with the Santa Fe Indian Center, said when she lived in Connecticut a few years ago, people protested the change from Columbus Day.
“I think people there were upset because they felt it was disrespectful to Italian Americans, and not appreciating that there’s room for everyone,” she said.
George Toya, 61, who designed the artwork for the official posters and T-shirts for the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, said he’s excited to see more cities adopt the day in favor of Columbus Day.
“Even though it’s being recognized, the education system has to catch up,” Toya said. “The young kids are still being taught a false history.”
Toya, a member of Jemez Pueblo, attended Catholic boarding school in the early-1970s and said it was a mixed experience in which he learned self-sufficiency, but also was cut off from his family and culture.
In government-mandated and church programs starting in the 1860s, tens of thousands of Native children were “reeducated” to forsake their languages, or practice traditions and “assimilate” into American culture through boarding schools. One of the founders of the movement, Richard Henry Pratt, established Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Penn., and summed up his educational philosophy as: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The presence of Indigenous Peoples Day, some believe, will continue to help people understand both history and reality for Native people — even if those conversations are sometimes difficult.
Toya said avoiding the tough topics only adds to trauma, and America needs to face the history of mistreatment, racism and genocide of Native people.
“History shouldn’t be whitewashed because people don’t want to hear the real story,” he said.
Staff reporter Robert Nott contributed to this story.