Courtesy Melissa Tso
The Red Nation coalition holds signed copies of Albuquerque’s Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation.

Indigenous Peoples Day, Challenging Colonialism in Albuquerque and Beyond

Nick Estes

October 7, 2015 is historic for Natives of Albuquerque. The Albuquerque City Council declared the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October, a day nationally recognized as “Columbus Day.”

Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city, and has the highest concentration of Natives in the state.

City Council President Rey Garduño sponsored and proposed the initiative, with the guidance of The Red Nation, a Native-led coalition. Six councilors endorsed and three abstained.

Albuquerque’s struggle, however, rose from the Native community’s demands and support from non-Native groups, not from boardrooms. Active coalition-building made Indigenous Peoples Day a reality. Albuquerque now joins cities—such as Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Berkeley, Portland, Lawrence, and Santa Cruz—that have declared similar celebrations.

Nationwide Abolish Columbus Day campaigns have projected the powerful voices of urban Natives. About four of every five Natives live off-reservation, and 44 percent of all Natives are under the age of 25. Some 55,000 thousand Natives call Albuquerque home. Also represented in the city are 291 federally recognized Native Nations. The current Native movement is increasingly young, urban, and diverse, and recognizes its resounding impact for all Native Nations.

Indigenous Internationalism

Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations, however, are not parochial, but part of a long history of resistance and collaboration with other oppressed peoples. In 1977, the International Indian Treaty Council called for the end of the celebration of Columbus Day, to declare instead the International Day of Solidarity and Mourning with Indigenous Peoples. The UN Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid, and Colonialism passed the resolution, with the support of many organizations, such as the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization, who recognized the devastating effects of colonialism.

In 1982, Spain and the Vatican proposed a 500-year commemoration of Columbus’s voyage to the UN General Assembly. The entire African delegation, in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, walked out of the meeting in protest of celebrating colonialism—the very system the UN was supposed to end. The commemoration was crushed, and the UN declared a celebration of the World’s Indigenous Peoples Day and the Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which began in 1994. The second Decade was declared in 2005, and the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

In spite of these achievements, an estimated 370 million Indigenous Peoples living in some 90 countries still constitute 15 percent of the world’s poor. Indigenous Peoples live in or possess some the world’s most resource rich areas, and are often victims to corporate development projects that disproportionately affect their lands and lifeways. They are also disproportionately subject to state persecution, sexual violence, discrimination, social exclusion, poverty, and homelessness.

U.S. Natives

These catastrophic realities reflect the norm for Natives living in the U.S. The U.S. is a settler colonial state premised on the erasure of Natives. Settler colonialism is a fact, not a historical debate. This ongoing persecution subjects Natives to the highest forms of violence, from birth to death.

“[Native] children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” a recent Senate report concluded. One report found Native children three times more likely to be held in juvenile detention and two times more likely to be transferred to adult prison. Seventy percent of the juvenile population committed to the Bureau of Prisons are Natives, with 31 percent of that population committed as adults. Eighty-five percent of those committed to these federal institutions come from Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota, states with high Native populations.

On any given day, one in 25 Native adults are currently imprisoned within the U.S. justice system, at rates four times higher than whites for Native men and six times higher for Native women.

While making up less than one percent of the U.S. population, four percent of the nation’s homeless population is Native. Two and one-half percent of unsheltered veterans are Native, and 4.8 percent of sheltered families are Native.

In Albuquerque, Natives make up 13 percent of the city’s chronic homeless population, while making up only 4.6 percent of the city’s total population. The city’s Native poor and homeless are frequent targets of police and community violence.

This last year, the sinister practice of “Indian rolling” claimed the lives of two Navajo men and left one Native man with severe burns after a couple lit him on fire with fireworks.

Since 2010, Albuquerque law enforcement has shot 50 people, killing 28. In 2014, after a record low of homicides, the Albuquerque Police Department committed 20 percent of city homicides. New Mexico has one the highest rates of police violence, with much of it directed towards Natives.

Nationally, law enforcement kills Natives at the highest rate of any group.

Most of these forms of violence are experienced off-reservation.

These deadly facts show the adversity Natives face, especially in murderous border towns. It sends the message we simply do not belong in the city. We have no place here. But that reality is being challenged, because we refuse to be erased and we refuse to go away.

More than Symbols of Oppression

Powerful voices such as Amanda Blackhorse show how the movement to abolish racist sports mascots can galvanize millions of Indigenous Peoples around the world. “Any attempt to humanize indigenous people,” she writes in ICTMN, “is a step in the right direction.”

RELATED: Blackhorse: This Is What Dehumanization Looks Like

Natives working against symbolic violence in imagery, holidays, and sports mascots make visible other issues.

That is why the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day must be met with serious demands to address the conditions of Native life in places like Albuquerque: the end of border town violence, the protection of Native lands, and the upholding of treaty rights.

Albuquerque’s Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation states the day “shall be used to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of Indigenous Peoples on this land.” As we plan to celebrate Albuquerque’s first ever Indigenous Peoples Day on October 12, we must reflect on the historic struggles of Native peoples, and continue to fight.

Natives’ continued existence, however bleak, is a product of our ancestors’ resistance to colonialism. Our future depends on carrying forward this sacred duty, a duty that deserves celebration.

This article originally appeared at, and has been republished with permission.

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