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Akwesasne residents share what Indigenous Peoples’ Day means to them

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 4:45 PM EDT
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AKWESASNE, New York (WWNY) - Indigenous Peoples’ Day is being recognized in more and more places. People at Akwesasne, home of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, tell us how it’s different from other holidays.

Those celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day say it’s not about shopping or big meals. It’s about a history of struggle at Akwesasne and across the continent.

“I’ve gone to the front lines in protest … all of these ceremonies full of our beautiful people. It just shows me how much we are worth it,” said Devon Oakes, Akwesasne community member.

And he’s just 15. He encountered it again at his public school when a teacher told him the U.S. flag represented Native Americans and their fight for freedom. They talked.

“I confronted him and said I didn’t believe what he said,” said Oakes. “I just showed him I wasn’t going to let him say things like that.”

The sense of struggle is heightened this year by the discovery of unmarked children’s graves at Indian residential schools in Canada. They’re also investigating in the U.S.

“Especially with the boarding school issue, I think that our voices are really being heard about what the true nature and the policies that the United States government and Canada and other dominating cultures have been,” said Beverly Cook, St. Regis Mohawk Tribal chief.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day started as a counter-protest against Columbus Day. So, hold the gifts, games, drinking and meals. At Akwesasne, they say the day is about something else entirely.

“For us, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day is really about bringing awareness toward things like pipelines, and protecting the water, and protecting the earth, and trying to preserve culture,” said Jonel Beauvais, Akwesasne community member.

Two years ago, elementary school students in Potsdam lobbied their school board to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And they did.

On Akwesasne, they say they welcome recognition like that and don’t mind some help in the struggle.

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