The 48th celebration of California Native American Day brought nearly 70 tribal leaders and hundreds of participants to the capitol in Sacramento on September 25. The event showcased cultural traditions and highlighted challenges tribes are facing, including water rights protection, veterans’ needs and efforts to ban racist mascots in schools.
Tribal delegations came from throughout California, bringing elders, students, veterans, youth, elected officials and dance groups who shared traditional songs and dances from the Shingle Springs Bank of Miwok, Karuk Youth Dancers, K’iwinya’n-ya:n Singers and the Kashia Pomo Dancers.
The day’s ceremonies began with an opening blessing and posting of flags by the Tule River Veterans Color Guard. The Blood River drum group sang a warrior’s song as a procession of Native leaders carried tribal flags that were prominently displayed across the steps of the capitol.
San Manuel Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena and Tuolumne Me-wuk Tribal Council Member Dennis Hendricks, masters of ceremonies, welcomed the crowd and spoke about the importance of California Native American Day to recognize the history and cultures of more than 109 tribal nations who collectively wield considerable business, political and economic weight.
With tribal communities plagued by drought, wildfires and floods, this year’s theme was “Water: Protecting Our Natural Resources.” At least nine tribes have declared water emergencies in recent months and several reservations were scorched by raging wildfires that burned 813,163 acres in the state this fire season.
Gov. Brown’s proclamation said, “ … contact between the first (Native) Californians and successive waves of newcomers over the three succeeding centuries was marked by the utter devastation of Native American people, families and society. The colonial regimes of Spain and Mexico, through disease and slavery, reduced the indigenous population by more than half. Then the Gold Rush came, and with it a wave of new diseases and outright violence that halved the population again in just two years.”
“The newborn State of California institutionalized violence against Native Americans, enacting policies of warfare, slavery and relocation that left few people alive and no tribe intact,” the proclamation states. “In his 1851 address to the Legislature, our first Governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, famously stated ‘That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.’ ”
“In spite of Burnett’s prediction, California today is home to the largest population of Native Americans in the 50 states, including both the rebounding numbers of our native Tribes and others drawn to the Golden State by its myriad attractions,” the statement said. “The success of tribal businesses and the rise of tribal members in all walks of life today stand as testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of our Native peoples. If Governor Burnett could not envision a future California including Native Americans, it is just as impossible for us today to envision one without them.”
In a special tribute to Native American veterans, Rincon Chairman Bo Mazzetti, a Navy veteran, and California Veterans Affairs Secretary Todd Irby called up all veterans in attendance and asked everyone in the audience to shake hands and thank all the veterans for their service.
“It was my honor to have designed a feather flag lapel pin with the Indian on top of pin and veteran on the bottom,” said Mazzetti. “This was the first time we honored our Indian veterans on California Native American Day. As a veteran, I was proud to see the great appreciation of all the people in attendance for our Indian veterans there. We have for too long forgotten to show our own veterans that we as Indian people remember and appreciate them.”
Three legislative sponsors of Native American Day, Sen. Isadore Hall III, Sen. Mike McGuire, and Assembly Member Luis A. Alejo, spoke about their efforts to fairly represent concerns of tribes in their districts.
Alejo drew cheers from the crowd when he discussed Assembly Bill 30, legislation he sponsored to help ban racist mascot names in California, including the term “redskins.” Alejo called 16-year-old Dahkota Brown to the podium and told the crowd that the Miwuk youth from Jackson Rancheria had inspired him last year by asking him to sign a petition banning racist mascots.
“This year I’m proud to have authored AB 30, a measure that would once and for all phase out the use of the R-word as a mascot in California public schools. Under current law, all persons in public schools are to have equal rights and opportunities in every educational institution of the state,” Alejo said. “But allowing a public school to use the derogatory term which was used to describe Native American scalps sold for bounty goes against this policy. This bill will gradually phase-out the term R-word as a school or athletic team mascot or nickname starting January 1, 2017.”
Though legislation banning mascots previously had been proposed in the legislature, this year Alejo was successful in getting the Assembly and Senate to approve AB 30. The legislation is awaiting Brown’s signature; he has until October 11 to sign the bill.
“I met Assembly Member Alejo in the capitol last year when I was asking for signatures on a petition banning racist mascots,” said Dahkota. “That moment was a huge turning point in my life because he introduced me to the legislative process and taught me how to work within government. I can’t thank him enough for sponsoring AB 30 with bipartisan support. We’re keeping out fingers crossed that Governor Brown will sign off on this historic bill so that California can lead the nation as an example to change these racist mascot names.”
Dahkota thanked all the elders, activists and leaders before him who worked for more than 60 years to fight the use of demeaning mascots and pledged to keep the movement going.
“We’re all a part of this fight and we’ll continue until we win,” he said. “It’s a matter of time.”
The 2015 Native American Day was organized and hosted by the California State Tribal Liaisons and the Southern, Northern and Central California Tribal Chairmen’s Associations.
Valerie Taliman is Indian Country Today Media Network’s West Coast Editor.