The 9th Annual Indigenous Peoples Day pow wow took over Randall’s Island this past weekend. The 3-day festival invites native and non-native supporters from all over the world to share their traditions through song, dance, art, and prayer, while rethinking the impact of Christopher Columbus.
This year, Native American leaders, elders, cultural performers and activists were joined by indigenous peoples from the Caribbean, Polynesian Islands, and South America for the festival.
Cliff Matias, cultural director at the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, said a festival of this size takes a lot of work to put together, especially with the rain dampening things in the field and campsite.
“The significance of the day is showing the survival, despite Columbus, of indigenous people. We celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day because this country celebrates Columbus Day,” said Matias. “Celebrating Columbus Day speaks of indigenous erasure.”
Matias’ organization aims to change outdated holidays and remove monuments honoring figures who have brought harm and genocide to vulnerable populations. The aforementioned Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who viciously colonized indigenous islanders in the Caribbean and kicked off the chattel slavery of Africans in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 1400s.
Matias and others advocate for New York City to join other cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Sante Fe, and Berkeley in officially changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. He added that his group often debates with the Italian community in New York and that he is not against anyone celebrating their heritage. He just wishes they’d choose a historical figure who hasn’t committed massive crimes.
The festival began with a series of dance and drum ceremonies, cultural performances, speakers and even celebrities. By Monday, leaders and attendees performed a solemn sunrise tobacco ceremony around a burning wood flame and then a water ceremony where members were bathed in the sands of the East River.
Jaime Luis Gomez, better known as Taboo Nawasha from the hip hop group Black Eyed Peas, flew in from a reunion tour in Mexico to attend the celebration on Monday. Nawasha is Mexican and a descendant of the Shoshone tribe. He said he was proud to use his voice to speak about native and indigenous culture whenever he can, blending his love of hip hop with family traditions. Ever since his battle with testicular cancer in 2014, he said that he’s been much more inspired to promote his history.
“Being able to be a voice and activate and inspire,” said Nawasha. “This is pride. Something that my grandma instilled in me.”
Nawasha said that his grandmother was the matriarch of his community and a very proud Native woman from Arizona. He considered her his “superhero” and became a performer because of her motivation. “The blessing of being able to travel the world as a Black Eyed Pea and bring music to the world and now to shine light on something that I’m passionate about,” said Nawasha, “It’s very innate in my DNA.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics 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://bit.ly/amnews1.