I’ve never really considered myself indigenous. Though I’m Native American, I was mostly raised outside the reservation. Growing up in areas where Natives were largely thought to be extinct, much of my childhood was spent trying to reconcile my Native American identity with my American one, rather than examining my place in the context of the international indigenous community.
By definition, indigenous peoples are ethnic groups who inhabit regions with which they have the earliest known historical connection. Thus, Native Americans are indigenous, and in many ways, their stories mirror those of indigenous peoples worldwide. Just as the United States has a tumultuous history with its first inhabitants, so too, for instance, does Australia with its aboriginal population. On the whole, indigenous peoples have faced many obstacles; our pasts contain stories of violence and cruelty, of oppression and genocide.
Yet the purpose of recognizing the indigenous community is neither so that a group of people may share their dark pasts nor to give a group primary claim to a geographic region. Instead, it is important because it allows us to examine the values and progress of civilizations and institutions as they evolve on a landscape changing around them. It allows us to recognize the often oppressive manner in which successive civilizations, peoples and governments choose to treat the native populations and the effect these choices have.
Most importantly, it allows us to connect this past with the present. We cannot ignore the continued struggle of the world’s indigenous against campaigns of discrimination, assimilation, and degradation of their cultural and religious ways. We must remember that all too often indigenous populations have inferior access to health care and live in countries where governments refuse to recognize their land, political and human rights. We must work to prevent the loss of language as the once decimated populations of the speakers begin to die out.
Today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a day both to celebrate the resilience of indigenous peoples worldwide and to recognize the importance of their struggle. It is day to think about the land you currently inhabit and to consider those who inhabited it before you or your ancestors arrived.
Though the stories of indigenous peoples are distinct, today our voices are united. As a collective of peoples, we celebrate our culture, our language, our songs and our lives. We join together and recognize that our common histories and current realities may, ultimately, bind our fates together and that we are willing to fight together for our rights. Today we show that we are alive and we are strong.
Michael Eagleman Honhongva is a sophomore in Branford College.