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Native pride shines in Durango

Indigenous Peoples Day celebrated in community once located on Ute tribal land
Participants of the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration march down Main Avenue to call attention to a host of issues facing Native peoples. (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

Native American students at Fort Lewis College gathered Monday for a potluck lunch punctuated by traditional Native dishes during a day filled with events on campus to honor and celebrate Indigenous peoples.

Many of the students wore traditional attire that danced with color and texture – shining bright with Native pride.

Shasta Hampton, the student engagement coordinator for the Native American Center at FLC, welcomed the students in her native Apache language before getting in line to ladle elk stew her brother harvested from their White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona.

Shasta Hampton helps dish up traditional dishes Monday at the Native American Center at Fort Lewis College during a day of events on campus celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day. (Garret Jaros/Durang Herald)

“Last year, our theme was honoring the children that never made it home,” she said. “And that really touched a lot of people because it was about residential boarding school children. And then this year, we wanted to heal from those impacts and that trauma, and I feel like part of healing is celebrating who we are as Indigenous people.”

With the official theme of “Healing Our Communities,” students, faculty and staff members were encouraged to “celebrate, honor and recognize our Indigenous people and their culture(s), resiliency, and contributions to the Americas.”

Campus events hosted by the Native American Center began at 8:30 a.m. with poster making; followed by a solidarity walk; the Indigenous food circle (potluck); earring making honoring missing and murdered Indigenous relatives; pottery making; Native Olympic games – hosted by Native American business leaders; then a short dinner break followed by a dance featuring hoop dancing.

“Healing comes in many ways,” Hampton said. “Like creating community through food, through ceremonies, or just being here at school – finding those ways to heal.”

Hampton’s homemade wozapi, a puddinglike dish she made with wild blueberries, spread plenty of healing goodness to the crowd that gathered.

Hampton estimates that Native students at FLC account for 46% to 48% of the student population, representing about 175 tribes.

“I feel like everyone is moving in a good space right now,” she said. “Just acknowledging Indigenous Peoples Day, and realizing that Indigenous people are here.”

Student Sage Walstrom of the Navajo Nation agreed that progress was being made.

“I think this day is a part of rewriting and taking over the narrative of U.S. history from the less dominate perspective. It’s a start,” Walstrom said.

When Walstrom, a junior studying environmental conservation with a food system certificate was in grade school, they were taught to honor Columbus.

“It was just so ingrained in our systems, and school systems, to teach this false history,” Walstrom said. “Now that I’m older and less conditioned, I think how absurd that there would be a Columbus Day at all, and how it seems only right that it is Indigenous Peoples Day. Kids now won’t be in school celebrating this glorious man. Instead, they will be celebrating their own peoples.”

Durango, which sits on the ancestral land of the Ute people, who were forcibly removed by the U.S. government in 1881, acknowledged Indigenous Peoples Day on Jan. 5, 2016, with a document signed by City Council and the mayor. The day is celebrated on the second Monday in October.

President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to formally recognize the holiday by signing a proclamation Oct. 8, 2021, declaring Indigenous Peoples Day to be a nationally holiday.

Despite many cities and municipalities across Colorado and the country recognizing the holiday, only 10 states officially celebrate the day – Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont.

An Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Buckley Park, which ran from 4 to 8 p.m., began with sign making while Native drums and singing played over a sound system, followed by a march down Main Avenue, with a stop to protest in the shadow of “The Chief” sign, a cartoonish caricature in the heart of downtown.

“We’re not Leaving!” the marchers shouted as they gathered on the sidewalk below the sign and across the street from Toh-Atin Gallery, which owns the sign. “Take it down! Take it Down! Take it Down!”

The gallery is a purveyor of Native American artwork. The owners have refused calls to remove the sign, saying it is a part of Durango history. Attendees of the Indigenous Peoples Day march called it outdated and blatantly racist.

Other chants along the Main Avenue march included “We are here! White silence is violence! Land Back!” and “Stand up and fight back!”

“Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women age 10-25,” reads the sign in front of a red dress at the Indigenous Peoples Day gathering at Buckley Park in Durango on Monday. (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

The Indigenous People’s park gathering was organized by Four Cornerless Borders, said one of the organizers who declined to give her name.

“Do you know how racist this town is?” she said. “That’s why I don’t give my name. The city put up a Columbus Day post on their Facebook page this morning. Only outrage on social media got it removed. The city of Durango needs to pay attention to what they just did.”

Another in attendance at the park gathering, who also declined to give his name, but identified as a member of the Dene, said he wanted to see an end to colonialism.

“Settler colonialism remains pervasive and so many people out there don’t admit or even acknowledge it,” he said. “I want to see it and border-town systems predicated on Indigenous displacement, violence and genocide abolished.”

Denae Stucka-Benally would like to see people educate themselves about Native peoples. (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

Denae Stucka-Benally, who is Navajo and a starting player for the international Indigenous roller derby team, said celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day is really important.

“I feel like people don’t realize we are still here,” she said. “You learn in school that this is who they were and you know, we are still here. We are still alive.”

Stucka-Benally’s mother was taken from her home as a child and raised by white Mormons under the Indian Placement Program, she said.

“So that wasn’t so long ago,” she said. “So I guess education. A lot of people don’t realize we are still here and I feel like even when it comes to stolen land, there’s so much real estate that a lot of Native people can’t afford, especially here in Durango. That’s one of the big things, to get our land back. Recognize that this was our land, and let Native people get more involved in those kinds of decisions.”


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