‘526 years of resistance and renewal’: Powwow celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Stephanie Li/Staff

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Sounds of bells jingling and leaves rustling in the wind welcomed hundreds of community members to the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Pow Wow on Saturday at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

Twenty-six years ago, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to stop celebrating Columbus Day and instead recognize Native peoples. The land that the city of Berkeley owns was first inhabited by the Ohlone people. During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Jesse Arreguín declared Oct. 6 Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

At the meeting, Arreguín and Councilmember Kate Harrison read the proclamation declaring Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2018 marks the 26th anniversary celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the city of Berkeley, in commemoration of the 526 years of resistance and renewal of Native cultures in the face of political and cultural repression,” Harrison said during the meeting. “This indigenous culture was disrupted and destroyed in Berkeley as in almost all places of this hemisphere and yet has survived.”

At the powwow, many attendees sat in a circle around a patch of lawn that served as an arena for a series of dance performances and competitions.

A variety of Native American nations wore colorful and ornate attire and bells around their ankles that amplified their footwork. Vocalists and percussionists accompanied them, along with children who energetically shook maracas.

In addition to more formal performances, there were opportunities for community members to participate in dancing. Audience members who joined in ranged from young children — who were teeming with enthusiasm — to an elderly woman, who relied on her walker to get her through each step.

Tents surrounded the arena, and vendors sold myriad indigenous crafts, including clothing, textiles, jewelry, musical instruments, woven baskets and food.

“The fight for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been a long one that is far overdue,” powwow attendee Karina Riesgo said. “It’s important to honor the land that we’re on in a good way.”

The site at 1900 Fourth St. — notably dubbed the West Berkeley Shellmound by the Ohlone tribe — has been the subject of controversy in Berkeley.

After attempting to develop 1900 Fourth St. for more than four years, West Berkeley Investors, or WBI, ultimately decided Aug. 23 not to develop the site.

This decision came on the city of Berkeley’s second rejection of WBI’s proposed project for 1900 Fourth St. WBI previously argued that the site qualified for SB 35, a state bill that expedites developments by curtailing city laws if the proposed project contains 50 percent affordable housing.

For the Ohlone tribe, 1900 Fourth St. is sacred land, and tribe members have repeatedly opposed development of the site. WBI has denied this, citing that maps included in the site’s Environmental Impact Report show the site was historically uninhabitable because it was underwater.

According to Corrina Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change and a member of the Ohlone tribe, a newer map of the city of Berkeley includes 1900 Fourth St. in West Berkeley Shellmound. Gould previously told The Daily Californian that developers see the Shellmound as a piece of land but that for the Ohlone people, it is a place where they pray and honor their ancestors.

“It’s one of the most important things Berkeley did — to declare Indigenous Peoples’ Day before anywhere else. It changed the narrative about what we should be remembering, what culture we should be celebrating,” Berkeley resident and celebration attendee Claire Greensfelder said. “It’s incredibly important that we celebrate the Ohlone people.”

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.