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Pauly Denetclaw

WHITE HOUSE — There hasn’t been rain in Washington, D.C., for a noticeable amount of time. But in the last week, a gentle rain has poured over the city during the two times we have gathered as a broader Indigenous community to celebrate. It felt like an acknowledgement that something beautiful was happening. It also gave way for me, as a southwest Native, to tease my Pueblo colleagues that they brought the rain with them, again.

The White House’s extravagant rooms were filled with art that immortalized the colonizers who built this country on the bodies of Indigenous people. In one photo of four Indigenous women, including myself and editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, a marble sculpture of George Washington stood over us. Abraham Lincoln’s portrait looked over another room.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Phoebe Keryte, PoQueen Rivera and Pauly Denetclaw at the first-ever Native American Heritage Month celebration at the White House hosted by First Lady Jill Biden on November 15, 2022.

I’m reminded every day of the history of genocide and colonization being an Indigenous person, especially a Native woman, in Washington, D.C. The white monuments, marbled buildings, and streets dedicated to the people who killed your people.

It’s heavy.

But somehow, like Indigenous people always do, we cultivate joy and happiness. This is what happened at the first-ever celebration of Native American Heritage Month hosted at the White House by the First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. We cracked biting jokes about “Indian killers.” We laughed while trying to move ourselves to make sure sculptures of past presidents weren’t in the background of our photos.

Hundreds of Indigenous individuals outweighed the heavy history in the east room of the White House. We made it more vibrant. As one attendee captioned on her Instagram, “Just for a few hours. The White House was Indian Land again.”

We wore our moccasins, seal skin, wide cedar hats, colorful ribbon skirts, the biggest dentalium earrings we had, heavy squash blossoms and the fanciest beadwork we brought from back home. The rooms echoed with our laughter and voices.

Before the reception started, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Pueblo of Laguna, made a speech. Midway through her voice cracked as she tried to hold back tears and she paused. She was acknowledging how incredible and historic it was that we were all there in the White House, together.

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It was a room full of Indigenous people from Alaska all the way to Florida. Dozens of Indigenous nations were represented. The White House chef served braised lamb, wild rice, blue corn chips with beans, pumpkin pie and a sweet cranberry drink. For those who don’t know, pumpkin and cranberries are Indigenous to these lands. I’m bummed they didn’t have Navajo tacos, a survival food, but I’m glad they served actual Indigenous foods. (To Indian Country, I’m Navajo so they’re Navajo tacos to me, aye.)

Charitie Ropati, scientist and education activist, gestured around the White House and posed a question to me that I’ll never forget. She looked at me with a warm smile, “Could you imagine telling 5-year-old you that you would be here?”

A knot formed in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. The truth is, I’ve always felt like I wasn’t enough. As I looked around the room, at the tribal leaders, presidents of universities, actors, artists and models, it finally sat in my chest that I also belonged.

I often contemplated this question. Representation matters but why?

Now, I know. We can’t dream our big beautiful dreams until we know what’s possible. I’ve accomplished every dream I’ve ever had by 29 and now I’m seeing a future unfold before me that I couldn’t even imagine in my wildest dreams.

So, to five-year-old Pauly, to all the young people growing up in a racist border town like me, others who grew up in rural communities on their rez, we can make it places we never thought possible. I’ve seen it in the faces of those I met at the White House in all their important roles and drive to make a difference.

The path is being laid and the gateway being opened for you and everyone else yet to come to achieve more than we ever dreamed possible. 

Pauly Denetclaw was getting hyped up by Center for Native American Youth executive director Nikki Pitre while posing for a photo at the White House. Denetclaw was mid, "aye." (Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT)
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