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10-11-21-natives-at-penn-indigenous-peoples-day-march-samantha-turner

Natives at Penn walking through campus during a march, urging the University to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day on Oct. 11.

Credit: Samantha Turner

On Monday morning, more than 25 members of the Penn community marched on Locust Walk, urging the University to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day, and also to increase institutional support for Indigenous community members on campus.

The march, organized by the student group Natives at Penn, began on 34th and Walnut streets and ended at New College House West. During the demonstration, participants held signs calling for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples' Day, with some reading "This is Lenape land" and "Columbus did not discover America #[Indigenous Peoples' Day]." Participants also chanted for land acknowledgement, including "Support Indigenous Peoples' Day" and "You are on Native land."

At the beginning and end of the march, students in Natives at Penn read a statement urging the University to add Indigenous Peoples' Day to the academic calendar and create a full-time staff position to support Native students at the Greenfield Intercultural Center. Students also demanded that Penn commit to increasing the number of full-time Indigenous faculty, administrators, and staff; develop strategies to recruit more Native students; and create a dedicated space on campus for Native students.

The statement by Natives at Penn is in direct response to an email sent to the Penn community on Oct. 8 by Vice Provost for University Life Mamta Accapadi and Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen. 

In the email, Accapadi and Detlefsen acknowledged Indigenous Peoples' Day and urged members of the Penn community to reflect on the history of the day and learn more about the Lenni-Lenape people, Indigenous people whose land Penn and the city of Philadelphia occupies. The email also urged Penn community members to learn more about programming, resources, and groups such as Natives at Penn and the Native American & Indigenous Studies Program. 

"Penn is proud to have many Native/Indigenous students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and we are committed to increasing awareness of this day and of Native American history and traditions," the email read.

The push for Penn to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day is also part of a national dialogue on acknowledging the history of Indigenous people in the United States. Last Friday, United States President Joe Biden issued a proclamation to observe the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples' Day, the first official recognition by a U.S. president. 

College junior and Natives at Penn Communications Director Nyair Locklear, who attended the march, said the march was particularly important this year because Natives at Penn has been in conversation with administration about their demands, but has seen little progress.

"We wanted to show our strength on campus and try and draw attention to our cause," Locklear said.

College senior Silvia Ayala said that while she is not a Native student, she attended the march out of solidarity, seeing similarities in the demands by Natives at Penn and her own advocacy for Puerto Rican independence.

"Colonialism in all its forms needs to be abolished, whether it's the subjugation of an entire colony or Indigenous peoples' land," Ayala said.

As a constituent organization of the United Minorities Council, an undergraduate coalition of ethnic and cultural groups, Natives at Penn is housed in the Greenfield Intercultural Center on 37th and Chestnut streets. Since its establishment in 1994, Locklear said Natives at Penn has been advocating for its own space on campus and recognition from the University.

"The GIC has been an amazing host for our organization, but it's not a dedicated space the way that other cultural centers have a dedicated space," Locklear said.

Locklear said the Oct. 8 email is the first step in receiving formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples' Day from Penn, but believes there is still room for improvement. For Locklear, formal recognition from the University is important in creating an equitable environment for Native faculty, students, and staff.

"We want to make it very clear to the University, other students, and administration that we are not easily trampled on," Locklear said. "We're still here, we still deserve to enjoy campus the way all students enjoy campus, and the faculty and staff who are Indigenous at Penn deserve to feel comfortable here and feel recognized."

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