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The executive committee for the University of New Mexico's Institute for American Indian Research (IFAIR) worked with Indian Country Today’s opinion-editorial editor Vincent Schilling in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The University of New Mexico history administrators put out a call for essays to students posing the question, “What does Indigenous Peoples’ Day mean to me?”

IFAIR received several essay submissions from across the UNM campus, with undergraduate students from all majors contributing. They received a number of submissions and voted on the top essays, according to assistant history professor Holly Miowak Guise.

The grand prize winner, “We are Indigenous,” was written by Julian Durand, with honorable mentions going to students Miguel Ramirez and Aaron Nicodemus. Here are the winning essays.

‘We are Indigenous’

Julian Durand


‘We are Indigenous’ by Julian Durand, Hopi.

Hino Mo Puyo Herimba. What does Indigenous Peoples’ Day mean to me? This day means resilience, revelation and being traditionally prosperous. Over the many years of genocide amongst all Indigenous people, we are finally getting recognized for who we are as a whole.

We are the caretakers of our Mother Earth, as we have been since the beginning of time. Many people do not know that we still exist in this modern time and are being threatened by the stereotypes of western cinema, but we are here.

We are still fighting the fight to keep ourselves alive with our traditional ways and well-being. Being resilient is difficult, especially in our modern times. We are not giving up and that’s what this day entails. Though Indigenous Peoples’ Day is just one day, we, as Indigenous people, live the Indigenous way of life every day until the day we are called to the spirit world to be with our ancestors. Speaking for myself, I have been celebrating a day like this most of my life because I am proud to be an Indigenous person and proud to show the culture that I have.

Resilience and revelation go hand-and-hand in working together to show that we are not giving up the fight and that we need other people to realize the genocides we have gone through to be here today. We are a tough and strong-minded people and we will do what it takes to help our communities and the ways of life for all of our Indigenous people. We have succeeded in many ways to bring back the realization of who we are and what we must do to survive for our future generations.

I attended a high school dedicated to an Indigenous way of education. The high school was called the “Native American Community Academy.” The focus was to create Indigenous future leaders within its own tribal communities, and I feel that they instilled that within me. I have chosen to major in Native American studies so that I am able to help my people in reviving lost traditions and language. I hope our future generations can see that we have a strong culture, tradition and that we love every single moment of it.

What does Indigenous Peoples’ Day mean to me? It means the resilience that we have for all nations across this vast place. It means hope for our future generations that they will carry on our ways and will teach their children here on and so forth. It means that we can actually breathe and take life for what it’s worth. That we pray for everyone to receive blessings from each corner of the world.

I believe that one day, from the learnings and teachings we have created, we will be able to come together to create a blissful world for all beings of life. The genocide we have faced will just be a mere idea in the back of our minds. We will triumph over the fact that these things have happened to us and we will be stronger in all aspects — that we are the caretakers of our Mother Earth, and we are here to stay to carry out that task.

Julian Durand is from the pueblos of Sandia and Picuris as well as the Hopi Tribe from the sun forehead clan of Hopi. He has two daughters and one son and is currently engaged to his fiancé. Durand is majoring in Native American studies at the University of New Mexico and plans to help his people in all aspects of reviving lost culture and traditional language. He hopes to involve the children to engage in the Indigenous ways of life.

‘We are proud of who we are’

Miguel Ramirez

Navajo/Mexican American

‘We are proud of who we are’ by Miguel Ramirez, Navajo/Mexican American.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day to me is a day that recognizes that the Native people of America have a holiday that celebrates their history and resilience — as opposed to the day named after a man who conquered them.

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Many of our holidays celebrate traditions, people, and history. So this day is seen positively — like the other holidays — despite what happened and the hard times that came for this day to be recognized. I feel that on this day especially, we are proud of who we are, who is in our lives, and how their resilience kept us here to this day.

To the Native peoples, they talk about every day being Indigenous day, that the Native people were on the land first and it helps to honor family, their language and to love the earth we live on. To me, it is a historical marking on the calendar year, of my ancestors, and a time to share a little about who I am, and my family. That is because I love my family, and I love the nation I was born in. They work together to help the Native communities, to provide jobs, scholarships, education, a healthy economy, and a safe environment for our future.

This day helps me recognize that I may not have the same culture as the other Natives, but that applies to others all over the world as well. I am a college student at UNM, and I appreciate the fact that I don’t face discrimination, and I am proud to make a better life for me, my family, and my friends of all races, especially Indigenous.

Some Native peoples on the other hand can see other races in a different light, as us versus them. I learned from my history and can understand their views with compassion. That is because everyone is different and even if we are in the same race we can also experience different cultures and have different values. Not everyone has a positive experience like me. In places around the world, some are still wary of the government we are in. That is because of our history and how it still affects us.

Many Native people face poor health, diabetes, domestic abuse, unemployment, lack of opportunities and a struggle against corporations. When I hear about the struggles I feel some dissonance and wonder how I can help. I grew up and was already Indigenous; I feel the exposure to our problems and it is something that still affects me.

I mention this because the Native community I grew up in provided opportunities for me to be healthy and smart.

Indigenous People’s Day is a time when the Native people have more exposure to their history and it gives us a chance to talk about our history, our expectations and our struggles that we can be open about.

Miguel Ramirez is Navajo and Mexican American and was born in Gallup, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation. He is a student at the University of New Mexico and is an aspiring writer seeking a degree in communications and journalism. He loves to run and write stories, and his favorite show on Netflix is “Lucifer.”

‘Shifting Indigenous Peoples’ Day into the social consciousness of the Americas’

Aaron Nicodemus

‘Shifting Indigenous Peoples’ Day into the social consciousness of the Americas’ by Aaron Nicodemus.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day means acknowledging a history so vast and rich that it could never be celebrated on a single day. It means that the energy and history that imbues these lands are once again present in our minds. It is the condemnation of the vile history of colonization, environmental destruction, boarding schools, and mass grave sites.

To an Indigenous person, I would hope that celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day feels like a step in the right direction. Not being Indigenous myself, it represents my eyes being opened to a culture I was largely unfamiliar with until I came to New Mexico.

Until I came to the University of New Mexico for my freshman year of college, I had lived in a small town in Colorado. In my entire schooling there, I cannot ever recall meeting anyone who identified as Indigenous.

Attending classes at UNM was the first time I learned any substantive Indigenous history in school. In every class in lower education, Native Americans were simply a circumstance or an obstacle. My U.S. history classes largely never discussed Indigenous history, and certainly nothing before colonization.

I was brimming with passion on this essay subject and feeling invigorated after having the opportunity to attend the ceremonial feast (Go-Jii-Ya) of the Jicarilla Apache.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be a spark for everyone to reform their framing of history, and for more perspectives to be taught in our schools.

Foremost, Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be an assurance to every Indigenous person that they will not be forgotten. For those whose Indigenous identity has been forgotten, it can be a catalyst to bring those traditions back or to be introduced to new ones.

From a historical perspective, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in lieu of Columbus Day just makes sense. Why should we celebrate one man arriving on a continent that others had been exploring for thousands of years? There is the ever-persistent concept that our history started in 1492.

It may be true that 1492 marks an abundance of written history, but this pales in comparison to the millennia of stories and experiences that were already here.

Aaron Nicodemus is a junior at the University of New Mexico studying biology. He enjoys fishing, camping, and biking around the UNM campus.