The 7th annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day festival on Randall’s Island kicked off for the first time this Sunday, Oct. 10, since having to suspend last year’s celebrations due to COVID-19 concerns.

The 24 hour fest usually displays a myriad of Indigenous cultures, music, songs, dances, food with an opening fire lighting ceremony and prayer led by the elders. It closes with a sunrise ceremony on Monday morning. Though Sunday was cloudy and rainy, attendees trickled in for the shops and festivities. 

Elder Wayne Duncan, who lives in New Jersey, started off with a prayer that honored the water, trees, sky, and tobacco plants. “It’s important to hear it in English first,” he said, “because the value of it is that we are all relatives. Our stories are all relevant, us being together today is relevant.”

Duncan then gathered the various tribes represented at the festival in a smaller circle on the lawn of Randall’s Island park behind the Icahn Stadium. Around a cauldron they chanted and threw prayers on the fire as they stoked it to life, even in the light rain. The thunderous, rolling sound of motorcycle engines revving capped the ceremony as the Redrum Native American Based Motorcycle Club encircled the park on Harley Davidson bikes. 

Post a racial justice reckoning in New York City during last year’s pandemic, the city school system made an attempt this May to designate Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Christopher Columbus Day when they initially posted the revised school calendar. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio and School Chancellor Meisha Porter said they had no knowledge of the controversial move at the time. Among “swift condemnation” from elected officials and Italian Americans, the Department of Education then backtracked and changed the name to Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, said ​​ABCNews.

This holiday is “rooted in inaccuracy and celebrates a tragic history of genocide and violence against the indigenous peoples of this country and all of the Americas,” said organizers who have been petitioning for more recognition of Native Americans on the holiday.

Activist Chenae Bullock is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and descendant of the Montauk tribe of Long Island. 

Bullock asked those considered “spectators” at the festival to be mindful that this was a time of grievance and celebratory resilience for native peoples. 

“For the last 400 years there’s been a rapist and murderer, a man who has genocided, a man who has become glorified, to continue the perpetuation of not only paper genocide of my people here in Long Island and New York as if we don’t exist,” said Bullock. “Understand never take anything personal but I’m speaking to that spirit.”

Bullock said that her community is still dealing with the high rates of missing or murdered Indigenous women that don’t warrant high media coverage because they are not white. She said that native lands are still being stolen and built upon which contributes to a “wealth gap.”

Courtney Streett, who co-founded Native Roots Farm Foundation, similarly spoke about her goal of establishing a sustainable farm and public garden in Delaware. She said the land has been inhabited by Nanticoke and Lenape peoples for generations. She hopes to provide the agricultural community an alternative to selling land to developers.

“Where my ancestors are from, the Nanticoke community, is one of the fastest developing regions in the country. And a lot of the farms are being turned into big box stores, and parking lots and houses,” said Streett.

Streett was selling fresh strawberry juice made with maple syrup from the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine and strawberries, a fruit native to North America. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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