“We have a voice, but no platform,” Ed Little Crow said above the beating of the drums at the Indigenous Peoples Day observance Monday at Southern Oregon University. Little Crow is a member of the elder council in Ashland, a group dedicated to ensuring indigenous peoples’ rights in the Pacific Northwest.
Scents of smoking salmon and earthy herbs filled the Stevenson Courtyard as burning bundles of sage were passed around at a salmon bake.
“We’re the smallest population in this world and we don’t have a voice,” Little Crow said. “We are a disappeared people.”
Little Crow said, as an indigenous person, he has a lot to say, but no platform on which to say it. That, he said, is the importance of celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day — to give voice and recognition to native peoples everywhere after so many years of abuse.
“I’ve got a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but I can’t use it because I don’t fit the criteria,” Little Crow said. “I even applied for a position at this college (SOU) and was turned down because I was over-qualified as a minority. That’s what they told me, and I don’t know what to make of that.”
“That’s what this day is about,” Little Crow said, waving his arm at the crowd behind him. “It’s not that we want anything or need anything, it’s that we want everybody to know that we’re the same as the rest of the population in the United States. We just don’t have a voice.”
As he spoke, the Screaming Eagle group sat circled around a single, large drum, singing, chanting and beating the drum in traditional song. Community members sat in the sun listening and eating a free salmon lunch, traditional aside from the aluminum foil it was cooked on and the paper plates it was served on.
The courtyard was transformed into a contemporary, mismatched pow-wow. “Contemporary” is what Kimmie McNair called her family’s pow-wows. She said pow-wows are not traditional, but it is a more modern version of celebration for the family to get together and celebrate their culture with each other. She said her family gets together for these events every weekend.
That’s how she came to play the hand-drum and sing, as she demonstrated at the salmon bake. She sang two original songs inspired by the Klamath, Modoc and Paiute tribal language and customs, from which performing family members originate and share close connections.
“I’ve been in the pow-wow drum circle all my life,” McNair said. “That’s how we were brought up. All of my five kids are dancers, two have their own drum group too. So, it’s been generation after generation involved in the pow-wows.”
“It’s a contemporary thing, we didn’t use to do this back in the day, but it’s a social event for us, a time for us all to get together with family and just have fun,” McNair said.
Laughter rang out from the circle around the drum as a baby was passed around and cooed at. The baby sported a single beaded, leather bracelet on his chubby wrist. The baby, Cedar, belongs to Lupe Sims, who as an SOU grad student in 2016 petitioned for the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day on campus. That led to its adoption by both SOU, which held its first celebration of the day last year, and the city of Ashland.
“The importance of this day is to honor our ancestors, honor those who are creating positive change for the indigenous people, and to be reminded that indigenous people are still here, and we are not lost,” Sims said.
Brook Colley, SOU Native American Studies program chair, said the purpose isn’t to do away with Columbus Day, but to listen to indigenous peoples’ perspectives.
“The purpose of today is … to come together to have one of these multi-faceted, multi-day events for the community so that they can learn about various concerns facing our indigenous communities,” Colley said.
She said the ultimate goal, aside from celebrating native peoples, is to start conversations in the community about topics that may be difficult to talk about, as well as educating the community.
“For many, many years, the United States has celebrated Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of the Americas, despite the fact that he never set foot in the contemporary United States at all,” Colley said. “His story has been one-sided, but what happened was that his coming here led to multiple genocides of indigenous peoples, it set the stage for the transatlantic slave trade and a lot of other things that really rocked many peoples’ worlds and really leveled many of those peoples’ worlds to the ground.”
Volunteer students from her classes dished out a large spread of food to go with the salmon. Mary Kent, a sophomore and Native American studies minor, said she’s proud that Oregon no longer recognizes Columbus Day, but instead recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“Indigenous people have a right to representation in this country,” Kent said. “There have been a lot of efforts to reclaim and reinforce indigenous sovereignty in this nation, and I’m here as an advocate of that.”
Aside from the joyful celebrations, there were many solemn presentations, including one by Chauncey Peltier, the eldest son of Leonard Peltier, His father is a Native American who many, including Amnesty International and Robert Redford, who narrated a film about the case, say was wrongfully convicted of the murder of two FBI agents during in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He is in his 47th year in federal prison and most likely will remain in prison the rest of his life, according to Little Crow.
Other speakers included Felicia McNair, David West, Brent Florendo, Mark Colson, Rowena Jackson and Shaun Taylor-Corbett.
“We want to recognize native people all over this world for their accomplishments and achievements,” Little Crow said.
(Oct. 10: Story updated to clarify timeline leading up to SOU celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.)