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Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow Led the Way for Others

Berkeley was the first city in the U.S. to declare October 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day—they just celebrated their 23rd Annual Powwow on October 10.

The city of Berkeley, California celebrated the 23rd Annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow as an official holiday on October 10. Berkeley was the first city in the U.S. to declare October 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This year, nine other cities across the U.S. have followed Berkeley’s lead.

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“It is even listed on all city parking meters as an official holiday,” said Gino Barichello, the director of Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow and committee member since its beginning in 1992.

Photo by Nanette Deetz

Seen here are some of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow dancers.

Several members of the original Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee are still actively involved with the holiday and powwow some 23 years later. “This Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow has been held in the same spot and honored by the City of Berkeley with an official Proclamation for the past 23 years,” said John Curl, one of the original founders and organizers of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Berkeley.

Why has it taken so long for other cities to follow Berkeley’s example? Mostly, it takes time for people to let go of the Columbus myths they are taught growing up.

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“It takes time for the truth to get out. On Columbus’s second voyage, he returned with a full army and the intent to wipe out as many indigenous people as possible. He literally invented the first trans-Atlantic slave trade,” explained Curl.

Courtesy Pam Center

California Pomo Dancers at the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Powwow from Elem Indian Colony and Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day grew out of the first International Conference of Indigenous People held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977. One of the main resolutions that came out of the conference was to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This idea went nowhere for the next 20 years.

Until 1990, when Congress decided to order replicas made of Columbus’s three ships and have them travel through the Panama Canal and sail through the Golden Gate into the San Francisco Bay on October 12 for a celebration honoring Columbus. When the Bay Area Native community heard about the plan, a focused resistance developed that included the American Indian Movement, the International Indian Treaty Council, and the South American Indian Information Center, which is headed by Nilo Cayoqueo.

Cayoqueo and Curl had met in Quito, Ecuador at the Encuentro Conference, a gathering of indigenous leaders throughout the Americas, held every two years. Again, one of the main resolutions was to create a “Day of Liberation” for Native people. When Curl returned, the “Berkeley Resistance 500” was created. “The City of Berkeley voted unanimously to change Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples’ Day and our committee was formed. By the second year, Millie Ketcheshawno’s (Muscogee Creek) idea was to create an annual powwow,” explained Curl.

Courtesy Charles Lopez Sr.

Original Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee members, from left, are: Lee Sprague Potowatomi), Millie Ketcheshawno Muscogee Creek), Mark Gorrell, and John Curl.

This history all came together to create an inter-tribal identity in the Bay Area as urban Indians. Twenty-three years later, the grassroots led integrity of Native resistance has become a national movement honoring truth in history rather than myth and lies.