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Native American tribes call for action beyond land acknowledgments

A sticker collage at Tocabe, a Native American-owned restaurant in Denver.
Shannon Young
A sticker collage at Tocabe, a Native American-owned restaurant in Denver.

The second Monday in October is officially Columbus Day. In recent years, some state governments have also designated the date as Indigenous Peoples' Day, but Colorado is not among them.

Some cities within Colorado have chosen to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day at a local level.

Right Relationship Boulder hosted an event on October 8 to commemorate the date and examine future steps. Several participants called for action beyond land acknowledgments.

Land acknowledgments in the form of short statements linking physical territories to displaced Indigenous people have become increasingly common in the last decade or so.

Public figures routinely start off their speeches with land acknowledgements while others tack them onto email signatures.

For many descendants of those displaced, the gesture can feel a bit performative.

Audience members were invited on stage to participate in a circle dance at the Right Relationship Boulder event honoring Indigenous People's Day at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder.
Shannon Young
Audience members were invited on stage to participate in a circle dance at the Right Relationship Boulder event honoring Indigenous People's Day at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder.

Rick Williams who is part Cheyenne and an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe addressed the crowd that gathered at the Right Relationship Boulder event.

“We have to get beyond land acknowledgments.. It’s not enough anymore to come and say you’re in the homeland of somebody else’s territory without doing something meaningful, without taking some action," he said.

Williams was referring to the restoration of land to the descendants of those displaced.

The demand, often referred to as “land back,” has been gaining momentum along with efforts to educate the public on the long-suppressed history of how the Rocky Mountain West was colonized.

“They didn’t want people to know that the greatest genocide that happened in America, happened here in Colorado," said Williams.

"Between 1861 and 1864, almost all Cheyenne and Arapaho and Osage and Kiowa; people on the Eastern Front Range and the Plains were forcibly eliminated or removed. That’s why today you have no Indian reservations in this land.”

A veteran educator and advocate, Williams played a key role in convincing Colorado Governor Jared Polis to rescind two proclamations issued in 1864 by then territorial governor John Evans.

The proclamations laid the framework for large-scale violence targeting Indigenous inhabitants, including the infamous Sand Creek Massacre.

Williams is now working to form a Truth Restoration and Education Commission to document and examine the history of the violent displacement of native people from what is now Colorado.

He says a next step is planning for the eventual return of the descendants of those displaced.

“Some people have talked about an embassy or a consulate so that they can at least bring the leadership back and begin becoming a part of the discussions and what’s been going on contemporarily," said Williams.

"Let’s do that. Let’s make that a goal. A year from now, our allies - I hope - will find a way to make that happen. Let’s find a way for those tribes who are ready to come back. They need land.”

The issue was addressed at the recent annual meeting of the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribal Council said Southern Arapaho tribal elder Fred Mosqueda at the Boulder event.

“One resolution that was passed was for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe to start to come back to Colorado,” he said.

Mosqueda said his tribe’s connection to the land persists through the generations.

“When we come here, we still can walk among the creeks and the rivers, the camping grounds. And it still talks to us. We still hear it and we still know that we have stories of this place and we know that the land here took care of us. And it can again if we’re just given the opportunity to come," he said.

"We don’t want to come and say, ‘Well, we want this, we want that.’ We want to come as neighbors. We want to come as partners. However it may be, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are ready."

Mosqueda emphasized that he is Southern Arapaho, but that prior to the mid-1800s, that distinction did not exist. The Southern Arapaho reservation is in Oklahoma whereas the Northern Arapaho one is in Wyoming.

Jacqueline White, an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said she applauded the Cheyenne and Arapaho people for the resolution.

"I hope that our people can do the same thing and make that resolution and start getting our way back here to home where we can have our lands,” she said.

“And so I want people to know that those prayers are there. Our ancestors are here. It’s up to this next generation to start building those relationships and helping us come home.”

Rick Williams outlined a practical solution at the event, suggesting a .005% fee on upcoming real estate transactions as a viable path forward.

"In Boulder County alone, it will generate $20 million to help our effort. Statewide, almost $60 million. That is what we need to bring our people home. Those are the kinds of actions that we need to take. And most of all, we have to recognize the trust. Because it is in that truth, that change is going to happen,” he said.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.