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Baltimore City commemorates first Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Jennifer Folayan (left) and Yahtiley Phoenix perform the Women’s Warrior Song outside the Baltimore American Indian Center & Heritage Museum.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Jennifer Folayan (left) and Yahtiley Phoenix perform the Women’s Warrior Song outside the Baltimore American Indian Center & Heritage Museum.

Baltimore area Native Americans sang songs of honor and remembrance and recalled years of lobbying local officials to recognize Indigenous People’s Day Monday, the city’s first official commemoration of the holiday.

“This is a day for all of us to celebrate,” Jessica Dickerson of the Lumbee tribe said outside the Baltimore American Indian Center & Heritage Museum in Upper Fells Point. “The indigenous community here in Baltimore are strong individuals who care deeply about their culture, traditions and staying true to our native ways of living.”

Baltimore is the ancestral land of the Piscataway and Susquehannock. Many members of the Lumbee tribe, whose ancestral land is in North Carolina, migrated to the area in the early 20th century.

The city previously commemorated the second Monday in October as Columbus Day. Last year, Councilman John Bullock introduced a bill to rename the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day within Baltimore. Though the council, including then-City Council President Brandon Scott, overwhelmingly passed the measure, then-Mayor Jack Young did not sign the bill in time for the 2020 holiday.

“Getting to this point has been a hard fight,” Dickerson said. “We call upon Maryland state officials to follow suit and do the right thing by abolishing Columbus Day in the state of Maryland and creating the official holiday Indigenous Peoples Day. Going forward, we would really love to see this day celebrated and honored as it should be.”

Dickerson, Jennifer Folayan, Yahtiley Phoenix, Tavi Hawn and Jennifer Hunt performed a rendition of the Water Song, an Anishinaabe song that Folayan says follows the ebbs and flows of both water and life.

Folayan and Phoenix also performed the Women’s Warrior Song, written by Lil'Wat elder Martina Pierre, in honor of murdered and missing indigenous women. In a 2017 report, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that murder is the third-leading cause of death among native women and that rates of domestic violence on reservations can be up to ten times the national average.

“This day is about telling the righteous truth about our history,” Mayor Scott said Monday in a statement. “We cannot chronicle the journey of America without recognizing the distinct role that various groups played in the early establishment of our country.”

President Biden became the first U.S. president to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Friday, when he issued a proclamation to observe this Oct. 11 as a day to honor Native Americans. The federal government of the United States still officially recognized Monday as Columbus Day.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.