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

Josey Tenorio, a Hopi descendant, is an advocate for murdered women and missing indigenous children. Tenorio hopes to get more help from the local government, advocating for tools to be more accessible such as an Amber Alert. “I would like for them [local officials] to start to take away the 24-hour wait on and the Amber Alert as soon as we go missing,” says Tenorio. Many indigenous people that go missing are part of marginalized, largely forgotten people of color, Tenorio explains, “we’re the least important in many eyes were seen as runaways, we are seen as people of color with drugs and substance abuse issues, which is targeting us as women that can be trafficked outside our country or out of a state.” (JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC)
An exhibit with portraits & stories of Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) are displayed at the Indigenous People’s Day celebration in Santa Ana on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. As of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identified murder as the sixth-leading cause of death among Native American and Alaska Native women. In 2016, the Urban Indian Health Institute reported 5,712 cases of MMIWG with only 116 cases recorded by the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, according to the exhibit’s display. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

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. 

Indigenous People’s Day celebration at the Civic Center’s Plaza del Sol in Santa Ana. Oct. 8, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

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. 

Missy Tupuola, left, a Pueblo Native American Indian and Otomi descendant based in Chihuahua and Durango, Mexico, stands with daughter Melody Rose Tupuola after exiting the main stage at the first annual Indigenous Peoples Day in Santa Ana on Oct. 8, 2022. “Being mixed native and not being raised with my indigenous background, I am what I consider a reconnecting native. I started reconnecting in my late teens, I am 30 now, and it is important for my daughter to know who she is.” (JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC)

“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.” 

“We are not scared to speak out.” Grupo Juguarez performer Tochtli burns poposchcomi before a dance to cleanse spirits buried underneath Tongva and Acjachemen territory that resides as parts of Orange County today. Tochtli believes that with events like Indigenous People’s Day, the passing of AB 1703 –a bill passed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that gives students the opportunity to learn indigenous history as well as the other side of it– and potentially getting the term “Colonist” dissociated from Anaheim High School, is making the support of the surrounding native communities acknowledged and more accepted in the state of California. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

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.

“What about us? We’re not called ‘Hispanics’, we are not ‘Latino.’” Tecpatl from Grupo Juguarez performed at the event in Santa Ana to protest Anaheim High School still associating the term “Colonist’ with the school. He is fighting to change the mascot to the Jaguars through an online petition to “Decolonize the Colony”, which has over 10,000 signatures as of Oct. 9. Tecpatl honors his heritage by attending events like Indigenous Peoples Day in Santa Ana and is continuing –along with many others alike– to fight & unite indigenous people of Mexica, Tongva and Acjachemen territories. “Knowing who we are, our identities, is very important,” said Tecpatl. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

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. 

Martha Poolxté from Yucatan, Mexico, carries her 15-month daughter. Pooltxté likes to advocate for programs that teach youth about their ancestral roots but recognizes that it’s hard to come by.(Julie Leopo, VOICE OF OC)

“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.” 

“Slowly it’s becoming more safe for Native Americans to express themselves,” said Valene Hatathlie, owner of Vals Frybread, who worked with Nellie LeGaspe – chairwoman of Santa Ana’s personnel board. Hatahlie assisted in organizing the event. She got her business started while trying to pay her college tuition and took advantage of an opportunity to utilize her skills in making frybread, using a recipe passed down by her grandmother. Frybread symbolizes the resilience of indigenous peoples against mass genocide brought by the United States Calvary during the 19th century, Hatathlie said. She’s from the Navajo nation and honors her heritage by continuing to learn her native language of Navajo. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

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.

Nelle LeGaspe, who serves on the city’s Personnel Board, said the event is about “people reclaiming their indigenous roots. This is their culture.” (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

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. 

The San Juan Capistrano Mission on Oct. 5, 2022. DANIEL PEARSON, Voice of OC

It’s also home to one of the region’s newest cultural attractions that memorializes the first indigenous communities in Orange County. 

The Village of Putuidem on Oct. 5, 2022. Credit: DANIEL PEARSON, Voice of OC

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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