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Indigenous Peoples' Day

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

While many who live in the United States celebrate Columbus Day, Native Americans have the opportunity to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous People’s Day was first proposed as a holiday during a 1977 United Nations conference on discrimination against Native Americans. In 1989, South Dakota became the first state to switch Columbus Day to Native Americans’ Day, celebrating it for the first time in 1990.

Today (October 12, 2020) in the City of Phoenix, Mayor Kate Gallego signed a proclamation, declaring the 2nd Monday in October to be Indigenous People’s Day for Phoenix as did Governor Doug Ducey signed on September 4th, 2020.

We honor the Native American people for their culture including art and many crafts, their food, their clothing, their grit and endurance, their goodness and influence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 4.5 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the United States today. That is about 1.5 percent of the population in the United States.

There are ten main areas of North America where the Native Americans have lived over the last 2,000 years. Only a few of the tribes are mentioned below. There are many more tribes who live in these areas totaling over 500 throughout North America.

The Arctic Natives include the northern parts of Alaska and Canada home to Inuit and Aleut tribes and bands. Some of these people were nomads, following seals, polar bears, and other game as they migrated across the tundra. Their outer clothing was made of beautiful caribou hides, and other animals such as polar bear, fox and wolf. Dried salmon was a popular dish along with other fish caught in those areas.

The Subarctic Natives lived in the swampy, piney forests and waterlogged tundra which is located inland in Alaska and Canada. Tribes and Bands include Tsattine, Gwich’in, and Deg Xinag along with Cree, Ojibwa, and Naskapi. Many years ago, travel was difficult in toboggans, snowshoes, and light weight canoes as they stayed in small family groups navigating across the land. They lived in small tents and lean-tos until it grew too cold to hunt. They then switched to underground dugouts.

The Northeastern Natives stretch from Canada’s Atlantic coast to in some cases North Carolina and inland to the Mississippi River valley. There were two main groups: Iroquoian speakers including Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora living along inland rivers and lakes in stable villages. The others were the Algonquian speakers including Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware and Memominee living in small farming and fishing villages along the ocean. There they grew crops like corn, beans and vegetables. These Natives were there to greet the arrival of the Pilgrims and help them survive the first winter.

The Southeast Natives extends north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of the Northeast area which was a humid, fertile agricultural area. Many natives were expert farmers and grew maize, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflowers. They organized their lives around small ceremonial and market villages. Tribes include Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole.

The Plains Natives lived in a vast prairie region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains from present-day Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. They settled in villages, hunting and farming during the early years. But after European contact, they became much more nomadic and used horses to pursue great herds of buffalo across the prairie. They lived in cone shaped teepees which was made of bison-skin and could be folded up and carried anywhere. Tribes include Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche and Arapaho.

The Southwest Natives covered a huge desert region of present-day Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Utah, Texas, and Mexico. Tribes of Hopi, Zuni, Yaqui, Yuma were mostly sedentary farmers and grew crops like corn, beans and squash while also herding sheep. They lived in pueblos built of stone and adobe with ceremonial pit houses or kivas. The Navajo and Apache tribes were more nomadic hunting and gathering and fashioned their round houses called hogans out of mud and bark.

The Great Basin Natives lived in what was considered a great expansive bowl formed by the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Sierra Nevadas to the west with the Columbia Plateau to the north and the Colorado Plateau to the south. These tribes of Bannock, Paiute and Ute foraged for roots, seeds and nuts and hunted snakes, lizards, and small mammals. They were more nomadic living in compact, easy-to-build structures called wikiups made of willow poles, leaves and brush.

California Natives were more diverse with 100 different tribes and groups who spoke more than 200 dialects. Despite this great diversity, many Native Californians lived very similar life styles organizing themselves into small, family-based bands of hunter-gatherers and established a system of trade and common rights which were generally peaceful. Tribes include Maidu, Miwok and Yokuts, Chumash, Pomo, Salinas and Shasta, the Tubabulabal, Serrano and Kinatemuk.

Northwest Coast Natives lived along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to the top of Northern California. This mild climate and abundance of natural resources provided almost everything the Native peoples needed including salmon, whales, sea otters, fish and shellfish of all kinds. These Natives were secure enough to build permanent villages that housed hundreds of people operating according to their social structure. A person’s status was determined by the number of possessions, (blankets, shells, skins, canoes) and other items. Tribes include Athapaskan Haida, Tlingit, Penutian Chinook, Tsimshian, Coos, Wakashan Kwakiutl, Nootka and Salishan Coast Salish.

The Plateau Natives were located in the Columbia and Fraser river basins which is the present-day Idaho, Montana, Eastern Oregon, and Washington. Most of these people lived in small, peaceful villages along stream and riverbanks where they hunted and gathered wild berries, roots and nuts as well as fished for salmon and trout. Tribes include Klamath, Klikitat, Modoc, Nez Perce, Walla Walla and Yakima or Yakama as well as North of the Columbia River, the Skitswish (Coeur d’Alene), and Salish (Flathead).

We celebrate the rich culture of Indigenous America with their Native art, jewelry, clothing, weaving, pottery and much more. Where would we be without their beauty, insight, and appreciation of the natural world today? We recognize them for their grit, persistence and great heritage.

See also for more info on Native American art and history.

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