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Arizona lawmakers question Ducey’s lack of Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation

When Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai reflects on the meaning and importance of Indigenous Peoples Day, she thinks of a question her nephew Gavin posed to her about six years ago. 

Peshlakai and her family had gathered in Cameron, the hometown of the Democratic legislator on the Navajo Nation. Gavin, who lived in Mesa but grew up also participating in dances and celebrations of the Navajo tradition he inherited, approached his aunt. 

“Auntie, are there still Indians here in Cameron?” the 6-year-old asked her.

“Yes, son,” Peshlaki told him. She regards the children of her brothers and sisters as her own. 

“Really? Wild Indians?”

Peshlakai said, “Yes, son.” 

He told her he wanted to see one. She told young Gavin to walk down the hallway, step into the restroom and look above the sink where a mirror hung.

“There he will be standing, the little wildest Indian in our little reservation town of Cameron,” Peshlakai told him. 

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The state senator, who sponsored legislation this year to change the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in Arizona, draws a lesson from that interaction with her nephew.

“The moral is our children don’t know who they are,” Peshlakai said. “Our society has never given permission to our children to be who they are, to understand themselves at the deepest level. We are the only population that has systematically tried to be erased for hundreds and hundreds of years. But our survival and existence is in jeopardy to this day.” 

Indigenous Peoples Day, while still sparingly celebrated, is recognized in a dozen of states and the District of Columbia. It’s meant to replace Columbus Day to instead highlight the Native communities of the Americas, their history and resilience, and to combat the erasure of their realities. Arizona alone has 22 federally recognized tribes. This year, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day.

In September 2020, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day for the first time in Arizona history. This year, no proclamation came from the Republican governor’s office.

CJ Karamargin, a spokesman with Ducey’s office, said the governor didn’t issue an Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation this year because no one requested it. But Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, told Arizona Mirror her staff asked the governor’s office to issue a proclamation. 

“There was no response,” Steele said. “I followed up Friday with staff and was told that the Governor’s office was still not responding.” 

Peshlakai said the Governor’s Office already had the language to issue a proclamation from last year’s document. 

“(Ducey) is a grown man who has staff who could’ve done this. We thank him for signing the Navajo Code Talkers Day bill, we really appreciate that,” Peshlakai said. “If the respect was really there we wouldn’t have to go back to the drawing board every year.”

Karamagin said besides the Navajo Code Talkers Day legislation, Ducey also signed a bill to allow cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies, which are examples that the governor’s office “have honored Arizona indigenous people.”

Peshlakai said it’s a good step for Ducey to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. But that, she said, needed to be followed with policies to better educate children on the history, reality and daily lives of Native people. 

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“There needs to be a path of just policies, addressing education in our schools and teaching about indigenous people, teaching about the truth of the Americas,” she said. 

In a statement issued by the Arizona Indigenous Lawmakers, Steele reminded state residents that “everywhere we walk, we are treading on Indigenous lands.”

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Screenshot via azleg.gov/Granicus

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, speaks on the Senate floor on May 8, 2020.

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