Left to Right Back: James Folkes, Elder Alan Salazar, Vice President Mark Villaseñor. Left to Right Front: Senator Ray Salas, Senator Cheryl Martin, Elder Beverly Folkes, Noli Ortega, Tomiear Ortega, and President Rudy Ortega. 

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was celebrated in downtown Los Angeles last Sunday although the official holiday was Monday, Oct. 14,  with LA government offices closed. Hundreds attended the weekend downtown celebration with blessings, the burning of sage, music, speeches and conversation among many dressed in native regalia. Many traveled from areas outside of Los Angeles to celebrate the city’s second official holiday, that at last,  acknowledged them.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to celebrate all native cultures, said LA Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who added the event, “elevates the importance of honoring the contributions and sacrifices made by our ancestors while putting the charade of Columbus Day and the false narrative that he personifies in the past where it belongs.”

While still not widely known, Los Angeles county has the largest Native American urban population in the country, so it was fitting that the city and county would take the lead not only in replacing Columbus Day with a day to honor native people, but took action to remove the Christopher Columbus statue in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles last year.

Also speaking to the large numbers of native people in Los Angeles, the Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration downtown is already being called one of the largest in the country.  

The Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians based in the City of San Fernando, and its tribal President Rudy Ortega Jr., was actively involved in establishing both the holiday and removing the statue.  Ortega Jr. is the chairman of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.  At the downtown celebration Ortega Jr. along with other members of his tribe, provided a blessing and song.  

Ortega often reminds people that Native American Indians are “still living and alive.” And he takes great issue with the notion that they are only found in museums. Ortega Jr. has actively worked for a place at the table for his tribe, which he said traces back to 450 A.D.

But even with historical documentation, like many tribes throughout the country for years, the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe has been working to be federally recognized. But it is a difficult process and can take decades. With federal recognition tribes receive legal status and requires the federal government to provide more services, rights and benefits. 

The move to establish the day to acknowledge native people has taken many years. The United Nation first began discussions in 1977 to replace Columbus with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States. The LA County Board of Supervisors voted last year to establish the second Monday as Indigenous People’s Day in the county and, in a bit of a compromise, Italian American Heritage Day was designated for Oct. 12 on the city’s calendar.    

For Caroline Ward Holland, an elder with the local tribe, the establishment of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is “one good step” toward local governments acknowledging native people, but she maintains that action needs to be followed by more action. Ward Holland has been very vocal in her concern for “righting history,” and would like people to be much more consciously aware every day about the native land that they are standing on.  

“I would like street signs and freeway signs to acknowledge us as the original and current inhabitants and our areas of land. I would like to see signs that would make people aware about who we are and where they are,” she said.  

Ward Holland often engages people into a discussion by asking them, “Do you know where you are right now?” which is usually met with a puzzled look, so she clarifies  “Do you know what native land we are on right now?” She asks waitresses as they serve her at a coffee shop, and people she meets as she goes through her day.  Ward Holland is able to open the discussion in a way that isn’t confrontational but often ends with a promise to get in touch or an invitation for a public native event.

In 2015, Ward Holland and her son Kagen began a walk to protest the plans to canonize Father Junipero Serra which grew to become a 780-mile “Walk for the Ancestors” that covered the state, traveling to each California mission. That walk grew her concern to “right the injustices imposed on native people  by the Catholic Church.”

For Ward Holland, native people should not rest until the atrocities committed against them are no longer allowed to be dusted under the rug whether by Columbus, the US government or the Catholic Church.

At the downtown celebration, many called on state and federal lawmakers to follow Los Angeles’ lead to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.