State Politics

In historic first for Idaho, governor’s office recognizes Indigenous Peoples Day

With Capitol offices closed around her for Columbus Day, 13-year-old Danielle Keith read the first proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day in Idaho.

“Whereas Indigenous Peoples Day shall be used to reflect upon ongoing resilience of indigenous people on this land, and to celebrate the thriving culture and value that indigenous people add to our Idaho,” Keith read in front of a crowd gathered in the rotunda Monday morning.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a proclamation designating Oct. 14, 2019, Indigenous Peoples Day, joining a national movement of localities adding to or replacing Columbus Day. Moscow was the first Idaho city to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017 and Boise followed in 2018, but this was the first statewide proclamation in Idaho. Cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle recently replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day entirely. Columbus Day was not celebrated in the nation’s capital, either; the Washington, D.C, Council voted earlier this month to replace it.

Opposition to local and national holidays commemorating Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has been steadily building for years. Critics say the holiday glorifies the genocide and slavery of indigenous American peoples initiated by Columbus’ 1492 landfall — and his expeditions didn’t even make it to North America.

Little was in Washington, D.C., and unavailable to read the proclamation, according to his spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison. No state officials besides Johanna Jones, Indian education coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education, participated in the ceremony.

The governor’s proclamation honored Idaho’s five federally recognized tribes — the Ktunaxa (Kootenai), Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), Newe (Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute) and Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) — and promised to “promote the prosperity and well-being of the Native American, Alaskan Native, First Nations and Indigenous community in Idaho.”

Monday’s proclamation did not make Indigenous Peoples Day an official state holiday in Idaho or even an annual event. That would require legislative action, something Tai Simpson, one of the event’s main organizers, said she hopes can be tackled in 2021.

“Idaho was indigenous land first,” Simpson, a member of the Nez Perce nation, told the crowd Monday. “We are here this morning because our ancestors survived and were resilient, so we could survive and be resilient.”

Simpson and other organizers tapped Keith, a Treasure Valley teen of the Athabascan and Haida peoples indigenous to Alaska, to read the proclamation on Little’s behalf because of her involvement in the local community. Her grandmother, Jennie McCammon, and mother, Treasa Keith, are past board members of the Red River Pow Wow held in Caldwell each fall. McCammon said Keith is active in the Pow Wow and Native American Coalition of Boise events, which they attend together.

“She’s really proud to do this for the Idaho nations, because they’re really the people who are mentioned in the proclamation,” McCammon said. “It’s quite an honor for them to just pick her out of everybody.”

McCammon, who is from the Haida Gwaii archipelago, moved to Idaho from Alaska 25 years ago. She said the recognition from the proclamation is important because those people indigenous to Idaho should not have their contributions or vibrant existence forgotten or erased from the state’s history.

“Everybody wants to be remembered,” McCammon said. “No matter who you are and where you’re from, it’s nice to be remembered.”

Other ceremony participants included Jason Pretty Boy from the Indigenous Idaho Alliance, Boise City Council member Lisa Sanchez and Lightning Creek, a drum group from the Nez Perce Tribe in Lapwai. Leaders from Idaho’s five federally recognized tribes, including Kevin Callahan of the Shoshone Bannocks, Ted Howard of the Shoshone Paiutes and Chantelle Greene of the Nez Perce, said the celebration Monday was a “great thing” for Idaho’s indigenous people.

Stacia Morfin had tears in her eyes as she tried to explain what the day meant to her. She drove from Lewiston and brought her 2-year-old daughter, Kalila, to attend the ceremony.

“I know the sacrifice it took our ancestors to still speak our language and keep our traditions,” Morfin said. “Sacrifices which let us be able to live and be who we are.”

While Lightning Creek played a closing honor song, Morfin danced on the edges of the Capitol rotunda in a ceremonial dress she created for the occasion. She said the dance and the design of the dress were meant to represent healing for all indigenous nations. Her daughter played on the floor in a matching dress of her own.

“I wanted her to be able to experience this,” Morfin said. “Because we’re not only honoring our past, but our present and future generations.”

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.