On Indigenous Peoples Day, Smithsonian museum highlights Black Indigenous voices

Monday is National Indigenous Peoples Day as well as Columbus Day, and at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in D.C., the focus was on elevating the voices of the Black Indigenous community.

“Their voices and experiences are too often left out of these conversations,” said Gabrielle Lee, the museum’s cultural interpreter. “We really wanted to give them the space to do that and shape their own conversation about what they want their identity to be.”

The museum streamed a panel including Black Indigenous activists Amber Starks (African American and Muscogee or Creek), Joy SpearChief-Morris (African American and Kainai Blood Tribe), Kyle T. Mays (Black and Saginaw Chippewa), and Autumn Rose Williams (Black and Shinnecock).

Panelists spoke of their shared experience finding a place in both communities, and of the tone-deaf reactions they sometimes get about their backgrounds.

“Everyone wants to figure out who I am,” Williams said. “No one asks me what my name is, how am I doing. The first thing they [say] when they see me is ‘Oh, what are you,'” Williams shared.

Williams, a former Miss Native American USA, said her unique background is also a source of strength, especially in the struggle for social justice.

“My ability to be proud of my blackness and to be equally proud of being a Shinnecock woman is the thing that gives me a foundation to keep moving forward every single day,” she said.

Museum organizers said people can observe the day by listening to others’ perspectives and learning more about indigenous people in their area.

Indigenous Peoples Day has been celebrated by an increasing number of states and cities in recent years. This year was the first year that a U.S. president formally recognized it.

In a proclamation Friday, President Biden said, “For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

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