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Biden first U.S. president to proclaim Indigenous Peoples Day

Tempers Columbus Day commemoration with acknowledgment of 'painful history of wrongs and atrocities'

Monday marks, as is tradition, Columbus Day across the country. But it also, for the first time ever, is Indigenous Peoples Day, following President Joe Biden's national proclamation.

Indigenous Peoples Day has for years been pushed by those who say Columbus' legacy of genocide against the Native peoples of the Americas should not be celebrated.

While it has been declared by various local governments, Biden's proclamation of Monday as both holidays is the first time a U.S. president has set Indigenous Peoples Day as a national observance.

"Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to," Biden said. "That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began. For generations, federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society."

The presidential proclamation was welcomed by members of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus of the Arizona State Legislature, as well as leaders of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O'odham Nation.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing when I look at a president recognizing and including the Native American peoples here in the United States and all their contributions that have made the United States the best county in the world,” Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio told TucsonSentinel.com.

The Tohono O’odham Nation issued a statement Monday, saying that the holiday is a chance to recognize their ancestors and honor their “inherent rights to self-governance” and the sovereignty of all tribal nations, saying they’re “foundational rights that the Nation will continue to defend to the utmost.”

Chairman Ned Norris Jr. and Vice Chairwoman Wavalene Saunders said the holiday gives their nation a chance to continue strengthening their “O’odham Himdag,” which refers to the tribe’s culture and way of life.

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"Our great nation has had to overcome many challenges, but we have always emerged more united as a people," the Tohono O’odham leaders said. "We are continuing to demonstrate that resilience and dedication to our O’odham Himdag in the face of the current challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. By getting vaccinated and practicing safe measures, we are protecting our children, our elders, and each other."

“Indigenous Peoples Day is about taking back our narrative," said Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai (D-Cameron), who has pushed to abolish Columbus Day entirely. "Acknowledging our existence and truth. We are here to stay forever, upon our sacred homelands."

“It’s been a long time coming," said Sen. Victoria Steele. "For centuries, U.S. policies have deliberately attempted to kill-off or assimilate and displace Indigenous peoples. We are grateful to President Biden, the first sitting president to issue a presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day. As Americans we have an obligation to know the full history of our country. Particularly here in Arizona where everywhere we walk, we are treading on Indigenous lands. There are some 6.8 million Indigenous people in this country who are very much alive and to finally celebrate our culture and the enormous contributions of Native people to this country is a recognition that is long overdue."

Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales (D-Tucson) said "The story of Indigenous peoples in North America, past and present, is often forgotten, invisible or ignored. Indigenous peoples have, and continue to make, important contributions that have shaped and continue to shape this country. Columbus Day does not bring communities together, it celebrates the attempted genocide, destruction, and erasure of Indigenous communities."

Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren (D-Red Mesa) said "Today, we recognize and correct the misguided narrative that Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America, which forgets that Indigenous people have been here since time immemorial and contributes to the erasure of Native people in today’s society. Today, we honor and celebrate our Native heritage, culture, and history. Along with this celebration, we must also recognize the many issues Native communities continue to face including the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, and the recent discovery of thousands of children’s bodies found at Indian boarding schools across this country and Canada. Ahé’héé."

Biden included language in his Columbus Day proclamation acknowledging "the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.  It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them."

Biden also declared Oct. 9 as Leif Erikson Day, honoring the Viking explorer and the legacy of Nordic immigrants to the United States. The president also declared Monday to be General Pulaski Memorial Day, in commemoration of the immigrant Revolutionary War general.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Bennito L. Kelty contributed to this report.

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