Everyone across Orange County today gets a federal holiday to reflect on the first contact between Europeans and the Americas.
But as with many historical events and icons, there has been an increasing refocus on this federal holiday in recent years with an eye toward a retelling of the first contact, one that acknowledges it was also a conquest.
This retelling has been gaining momentum since worldwide events in the 1990s commemorated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America in 1492.
There’s more than 500 recognized indigenous tribes in the U.S, and another 800 across Latin America.
Yet there’s few places where this retelling plays out more starkly than Orange County.
This past weekend, City of Santa Ana officials inaugurated their first Indigenous People’s Day.
City officials said they organized the event to honor the history and contributions of Native cultures and communities through their knowledge, spirituality, creativity, art, technology, and philosophies, according to the city of Santa Ana.
Festivities from the day included food trucks and merchandise vendors, resource booths, family activities, and live performances from Indigenous artists such as Maya Jupiter, Blackbird, and more.
In 2021, the Biden Administration officially declared the second Monday of October as “Indigenous Peoples Day” at the national level. The proclamation acknowledges to “never forget the history of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror” brought upon indigenous communities throughout the county, according to the proclamation address.
The administration also still acknowledges and considers Columbus Day as a federal holiday celebrated on the same day. It’s said in their proclamation that the holiday is considered a day of reflection on “American’s spirit on exploration,” the molding of a nation, and addressing that there is still work to be done to support indigenous communities.
“We are making sure that everyone knows that we are not teaching our kids the lies that he [Columbus] discovered natives, kind of hard to discover people that are already here,” says Missy Tupuola, a mixed native with indigenous roots in Mexico and Native America.
Missy’s daughter, Melody, said she also advocates for her ancestry among her peers in the classroom, including asking a Voice of OC journalist on Saturday for an interview after her mother finished speaking, adding, “Christopher Columbus was a bad man; I don’t want to curse, but he is a really bad man. In school, my teachers usually talk about him saying, ‘Oh, my God, Christopher Columbus discovered you,’ and I’m like, okay?” said Melody, “He hurt my people.”
In places like in San Juan Capistrano, that retelling of history happens every day in real time at the San Juan Capistrano Mission and the newly designated Putuidem Cultural Village at the Northwest Open Space.
“We are the beginning of this area. Sometimes in the history books, it starts with missions. And our history of this land that we call Mother Earth goes on before the mission. In fact, that history goes back thousands of years before that,” shares local tribal member Jacque Toohokah Nunez, of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.
Living an indigenous life is important for indigenous people like Martha Poolxté from Yucatan, Mexico. Poolxté connects to her roots through cuisine, ethnic clothing and speaking Mayan. “I would like more spaces to be ourselves, to allow us to express our culture, just to live it, I guess, so not make it a one-time event, so make it an everyday thing. As I said, culture, everything around culture, has to be kept alive and practiced,’’ said Poolxté.
“This is about the survival of traditions that have been under fire and existing for the future generations that aren’t here yet.” said Alexandro Gradilla, an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton specializing in Indigeneity and Autochthonous identities, “We are no longer normalizing conquest, colonialism, slavery, the stealing of land. This is kind of the first move in that direction.”
Nellie LeGaspe, a Santa Ana resident that serves on the city’s personnel commission, said the city of Santa Ana identifies the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day and has dissociated themselves from recognizing Columbus Day.
Santa Ana spokesperson Paul Eakins didn’t return Voice of OC calls and emails on Friday and Saturday asking whether the city still recognizes the federal holiday or had any celebrations planned around Columbus Day.
County of Orange officials still officially recognize Columbus Day but it’s unclear whether there’s any official events organized today.
Orange County is also home to one of the oldest missions in North America in San Juan Capistrano, another institution that has experienced its own retelling of history with recent criticism of Father Junipero Serra.
It’s also home to one of the region’s newest cultural attractions that memorializes the first indigenous communities in Orange County.
Correction: an earlier version of this story indicated Pat Vegas of Redbone would have a live performance at the event, but that was cancelled.
Daniel Pearson and Amir Ghani contributed to the reporting of this story.
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