Six people sat in a circle Monday night, keeping a steady beat on one large drum in the heart of Salt Lake City.
Throughout the hourlong celebration of the city’s first Indigenous Peoples’ Day — which coincides with the state holiday of Columbus Day — American Indians in Utah made passionate and emotional statements through word, song, dance and prayer.
“This is a symbolism of the energy and the resilient spirit of so many people,” Moroni Benally said after the Library Square event concluded. “There were moments that were emotional for me because we are finally recognizing what had happened to our people. I‘m happy about that.”
Benally, of the Utah League of Native American Voters, told the crowd of about 100 people in his opening remarks that because of the new holiday, future generations will “know the right version of history, and they will recognize where [Christopher] Columbus actually stands in relation to all of that.”
Members of several tribes joined one another in prayer and dance — a symbol of American Indian unity, said Carl Moore, chairman of Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support (PANDOS).
Moore, who participated in four of the five traditional dances at the event, explained the dances’ meanings to the crowd. The “sneak up” dance represents how warriors never left one another behind in battle, he said. The grass dance represents the resiliency of American Indian people; though the wind might blow them over for a time, they rise back up to face new challenges.
Others who participated in the event spoke about issues that plague American Indian people, who have endured genocide, cultural appropriation and insensitivity to what they hold sacred.
James Singer and Carol Surveyor, both of the Utah League of Native American Voters, shared comments they’d heard or seen about how their people were making too big a fuss over the holiday.
Monday was a “hard day” for Surveyor, she said because people made comments about the new holiday “brown-washing history.” They defended Columbus to Surveyor, saying they couldn‘t find evidence of him killing American Indians, sexually abusing them or bringing disease to them.
But rather than respond to those kinds of comments, Surveyor — who is running as a Democrat for Republican Chris Stewart’s U.S. House seat — challenged people with indigenous heritage to “change the narrative.”
“Recognizing Indigenous Peoples‘ Day is controversial,” Singer told the crowd, “but indeed, our very existence as indigenous peoples is controversial — because recognizing that survivors of the civilizations that stretched across these continents are still here means that one has to admit that something atrocious occurred here.”
It doesn’t matter to him, Singer said, how white people interpret the holiday. “I’m not here as some kind of indigenized Jiminy Cricket to help them convert a wooden soul to a human one,” said Singer. “I want to speak some words, instead, of hope to my indigenous brothers and sisters.”
Indigenous people belong here and should fight to be heard and seen, he said. They aren’t meant to watch silently as their stories are erased out of history books, Benally added. They are meant to act and make the future a better one.
“We‘re still here,” Benally said, echoing the other speakers.
“And we will always be here.”