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What Indigenous People’s Day Means to Me

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October 12, 2020

Tonisha Simmons is an administrative assistant in the facilities and infrastructure division at SEA Airport. 

Indigenous People’s Day to me means resilience. It’s a celebration of survival and overcoming tragedies and trauma of decades and centuries both past and present. 

I’m part Alaskan Native (Aleut). It’s important to say, especially in North America and the Northwest. Though I am Native by all accounts, I am not of a North American tribe. This distinction is important.  Although Natives from many lands have suffered genocide, relocation, Indian Boarding Schools, stolen lands, and various other atrocities, our battles today are different. 

Land ties. Subsistence living — living off the land. That is what our tribe does in Alaska. Water is sacred. It provides and carries the fish that provide food through the seasons. Indigenous to me is belonging to the land.

Two native Alaska children in vintage photo
Tonisha's mother and uncle

My mother grew up in Alaska. Born in Nondalton. She was taken from her family when she was only three years old along with her younger brother (two years old) and put into a system later described as foster care. She was not the only child stolen. Many other siblings would soon follow to be scattered about the land to forget who they were. My mother is one of 16 children. 

It was not uncommon for children to be stolen. Indian Boarding Schools and the foster care systems were effective ways to “Remove the Indian” from children, families, and communities. To assimilate into a culture and in some cases, if you were light enough, to pass for white. It was easier, they were encouraged, and blending in was regularly suggested. 

Two women dressed in Native outfits at SEA Airport
Tonisha and Ellany Kayce, the manager of the Sacred Circle gift shop at SEA Airport

Thankfully due to records, research, and shared knowledge my mother has returned to her family and brought her children and grandchildren with her. A return home. A return to her heritage, birthright, language, and matriarchy. She has always been a strong woman, very independent. 

As I reflect on Indigenous People’s Day, and how my own family has overcome its own hurdles to return home, I am reminded of the sacrifice but also the love and acceptance. That is what being a part of a community feels like. It’s like a big hug waiting for you to accept. Gathering around food, family, traditions, laughs, and community.

Ch’adach’ q’u yagheli ghinla tsadi (May you have good luck.)

Top image credit: "2015_AKPB_SC (1)" by USFWSAlaska is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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