Diné Nation freelance fashion writer, content creator, and social media specialist
On January 20, like most Americans, I watched in awe the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. His speech was full of hope, empathy, and resolve. He vowed to lower the temperature of our political discourse and put an end to the ‘uncivil war’ ignited by Trump.
His call for diversity and inclusion was perfectly reflected in a number of historic firsts including Kamala Harris, the first woman vice-president of Black and South Asian descent; Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Secretary of Transportation nominee; and Amanda Gorman, the youngest Poet Laureate to recite the inaugural poem.
For me, as a Diné, also from New Mexico, the nomination of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior, was the icing on the cake. If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland, from the Pueblo of Laguna, will become the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary – a feat 500 years in the making.
On inauguration day, Haaland’s viral selfie in front of the Capitol, wearing a ribbon dress and traditional red moccasins, spoke volumes to the importance of this historic moment. Once again, I smirked at the thought of the founding fathers rolling in their graves because, in their own words that are now part of the Declaration of Independence, one of those ‘Merciless Indian Savages’ made it to the Hill.
However, in the midst of all that jubilation, from the arrival of esteemed guests – including the Obamas – to Lady Gaga’s showstopping performance, my excitement quickly diminished the moment Jennifer Lopez uttered those cringe-worthy words:
This land is your land.
Just like that, I fell from cloud nine and returned to a reality where the erasure of Indigenous people is the norm. All that talk of multiculturalism, of ‘Celebrating America,’ went out the window, allowing white supremacy to reign supreme. For us Natives – the original inhabitants of this country – this song opens up deep wounds of genocide, western expansion, and forced relocation from our traditional homelands.
On social media, the song choice generated an immediate backlash from both Native and non-Native viewers alike:
@_NativeInLa tweeted: “I cringe when I hear ‘This land is your land.’ It’s rooted in colonialism, genocide, racism & theft of lands cared for by Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island.”
Rabbi Ruti Regan (@RutiRegan) wrote: “Wow, ‘This land is your land this land is my land’ is NOT a song that should be sung at an inauguration.”
“Damn, This Land Is Our Land is like the most, white American song ever & it kind of embarrasses me that they had it performed at the inauguration. This land was Native American land, stolen, then built by slaves who were also stolen from THEIR land. We cannot ever forget this,” added Twitter user Kara (@intrkm).
Other viewers were more creative in their response. The day after the inauguration, singer-songwriter, Katherine Jefferson (@kat_jefferson), from the Assiniboine and Lummi tribes, uploaded a heartfelt TikTok performance of her own interpretation of the song, labeling it ‘This Land Is Native Land, This Land Is Stolen Land.’
“Changed the lyrics today at work, wanted to share it! This land is stolen land. We are still here!” she proclaimed.
Garnering over 90,000 likes and counting, her version of the song became a viral hit, popping up on other social platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
In mainstream media, major news outlets around the world were calling JLo’s performance “iconic” and “moving.” Of course, the only controversy for some was that Lopez sprinkled in some Spanish, but I digress.
Still, as I continued to watch the inauguration that day, my mood was uplifted by the powerful words of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” reminded us all of what it means to be American:
“Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
It’s not enough to simply name drop us in passing, or to show half-second imagery of us forever dancing during video montages. If Joe Biden truly wants to be a President for all; ‘to heal the nation,’ as he likes to tout. He, and the American people at large, need to take ownership of this nation’s dark past that began with the near-annihilation of the first Americans.
To acknowledge, without hesitation, that this land is indeed stolen Native land.
Niya DeGroat is from the Diné Nation. He is a freelance fashion writer, content creator, and social media specialist. He recently obtained his master's degree in fashion journalism from the Academy of Art University with a focus on Indigenous fashion and storytelling. You can find him on social media at @niyadegroat.