Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day

As a Native American, I am proud to live and serve in a city that recognizes the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Auburn is one of more than 130 cities and states across the United States to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We are fortunate to share land and history here in Washington State with our neighbors, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Today there are 574 federally recognized Indian nations in the United States, of which 29 are in Washington State.  Each of these tribes are sovereign nations, and their members are citizens of their own tribe, citizens of the state they live in and, since 1924, citizens of the United States.  Indigenous peoples have stewarded the land, created thriving cultures, and governed themselves in North America for tens of thousands of years.

According to the U.S. Census, there are 6.9 million Native Americans living in the United States, which is about 2% of the country’s total population. Native peoples have had to fight for centuries to preserve our right to fish, hunt, speak our languages, practice our religions, and protect our lands.

Native peoples have had to overcome wars, disease, forced relocations, and even federal programs intended to terminate their tribal status. My own mother was part of the federal relocation program in the 1960s which moved Native people away from their reservations and into large cities with the goal of assimilating them into a non-Indian culture. As a Navajo teenager, she moved from a small village on the Navajo reservation to Los Angeles, the city where I was born.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day we celebrate tribal sovereignty and self-governance, and remember the invaluable contributions that Native peoples have made to our nation throughout our history. But, on this day I also reflect upon Williams College, the school I am proud to have attended, and its relationship to the first peoples of the land who lived there for thousands of years before the school was founded.

Williams College is built on the lands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok, or The People of the Waters that Are Never Still. The Muh-he-con-ne-ok, more commonly called the Mohican, were forced to relocate westward due to colonization in the 18th century. Today, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians is a federally recognized tribe in Wisconsin.

The Williams family, especially our founder’s father, Ephraim Williams, Sr., played a critical role in the dispossession of the tribe’s lands. Williams College’s history and future is forever intertwined with the indigenous character, history, and spirit of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.

On Indigenous People’s Day, Williams College can and should raise awareness about the importance of celebrating the culture of the original inhabitants of our campus and the surrounding lands. I am grateful that the College is taking steps to build a solid relationship with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. There remains much work to be done.

I hope to see the day when the tribe will return to their homelands, to their sacred sites, their rivers and mountains.  And I hope to see more indigenous students, faculty and curricula at Williams College.

I encourage Williams College to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day because by honoring Native cultures, history, and achievements, our school can do its part to push back on the invisibility of Native American tribes and peoples.  This is the day in which we all can take time to better understand our Native neighbors in our own towns and cities, states and regions and ask ourselves: how can I be a better friend, neighbor, and ally to them.

Finally, let’s remember that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is really about the future. A future built on the resilience and strength of our ancestors and elders. A future built on the optimism and imagination of our youth. And a future in which we know that we are bound together by a common concern for one other. As the great Chief Seattle said, “This we know, all things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.”

Chris Stearns ’86 is a Councilmember for the City of Auburn, Washington. He is also Of Counsel with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker, a law firm that represents Native American tribes across the U.S., where he has had the wonderful fortune to be able to represent his own tribe, the Navajo Nation, in legal matters over the years. During his time in Washington, D.C., he served as the first-ever Director of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy, Democratic Counsel for the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, and Deputy Counsel for the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. Since relocating to Washington State, Chris has chaired the Washington State Gambling Commission, the Seattle Human Rights Commission, and the Board of Directors of the Seattle Indian Health Board. He also serves on the Washington Attorney General’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni.  A previous version of this article appeared last year in the Auburn Examiner.