‘We’re a living presence’: Philly celebrates first officially recognized Indigenous Peoples Day

Kai'Lyn Ellis, 5, and her sister, Li'Ana Ellis, 10, members of the Nanticoke Lenape tribe, perform a toe dance while their father, Tyron Ellis chants at Philadelphia's Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kai'Lyn Ellis, 5, and her sister, Li'Ana Ellis, 10, members of the Nanticoke Lenape tribe, perform a toe dance while their father, Tyron Ellis chants at Philadelphia's Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Drawing attendees from as far away as South Dakota and Canada, Philadelphia’s Indigenous Peoples Day ceremony at Penn Treaty Park marked a kind of homecoming for attendees.

The event consisted of traditional music, dances, storytelling, and oral histories from Indigenous people around the globe. This year, organizers with Indigenous Peoples’ Day Philly Inc (IDP Philly) wanted to foreground the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians, native to eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and their displaced descendants. The location, the site of early treaties between the Lenape and Quaker settlers, was intentional.

Adniel Avendano of Oaxaca, Mexico, prepares a traditional Aztec headdress for a performance at Indigenous Peoples Day in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ben Miller, an event coordinator who traveled to Philadelphia from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, said there are three federally recognized tribes of Delaware in the United States and two in Canada.

”That’s our family and we stick together … We’re here to represent our people,” he said.

Teresa Johnson traveled from Moraviantown, Ontario, Canada, to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in Philadelphia, where her family originated before they were pushed to distant reservations by European settlers. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Teresa Johnson, a member of the Delaware Indians and descendent of Teedyuscung, a local Lenape leader for a period of the 1700s, traveled all the way from Moraviantown, Ontario.

“I’m here to find out more about Teedyuscung myself,” she said.

The city’s fifth annual Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, was the first to be formally recognized. In January, Mayor Jim Kenney issued an executive order, changing Oct. 11 to Indigenous Peoples Day. On Friday, President Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation recognizing the holiday nationwide.

An Aztec copilli, or crown of feathers, waits to be worn during a dance at Philadelphia’s Indigenous Peoples Day at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to,” wrote Biden in the proclamation.

On a local level, some participants said the event helps educate Philadelphians about local history and counteract the erasure of Indigenous peoples.

“I think there are a lot of times this idea that indigenous people are somewhere else, or don’t exist at all,” said Tailinh Agoyo, director of We Are the Seeds of CultureTrust, an Indigenous arts and culture organization in Philadelphia.

Kai’Lyn Ellis, 5, dances on stage during her father’s performance at Philadelphia Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Around 14,000 people living in Philadelphia identify as Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“This particular event is really special because … it’s an opportunity for the Philadelphia community to come out and experience indigenous music and dance and talk to Indigenous people,” said Agoyo.

A crowd gathers on the lawn at Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia to watch the music and dancing at the Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This year, however, the celebration comes amid a flurry of legal activity around a statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, and backlash against the renaming of the holiday.

The statue has remained encased in a plywood box since last year, when it became the site of a violent counter-protest during social unrest following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. A group of men said to be protecting the statue assaulted members of another group of people protesting police brutality, sparking outrage. The Philadelphia Art Commission then approved a move by Kenney to put the statue into storage, but a judge blocked that decision from taking effect.

It looked as though the statue would be unboxed in time for Columbus Day, but a late-night Commonwealth Court ruling this past Saturday maintained the status quo. On Sunday, local Italian-Americans celebrated Columbus Day by gathering around the statue, waving Italian flags, and in some cases, criticizing local leadership.

Columbus Day started as a way for Italian-Americans to celebrate their contributions in the United States during a time of anti-Italian sentiment. In recent years, the day has drawn criticism for its selective lens on history — exalting Columbus while ignoring his role in the exploitation and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Cities and states around the United States have moved away from celebrating Columbus Day in favor of celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.

Mabel Negrete, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Day Philly, speaks at the 5th annual event at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

IPD Philly’s Executive Director Mabel Negrete took aim at Columbus defenders, saying it’s time to “abolish the myth” of Columbus Day.

“Especially now that people are questioning … why the change [from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day] should be made, I think it’s important that people see us,” said Kerri Helme, member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts.

Kerri Helme, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Cape Cod, dances at the Philadelphia Indigenous Peoples Day celebration held at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Helme and Tatanka Gibson, of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe in North Carolina, demonstrated traditional dances and taught the crowd of more than 100 people social dances that were passed up and down the Eastern seaboard.

“Showing that we’re a living presence … this is why it’s important,” said Helme.

Tatanka Gibson of the Haleiwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina leads a social dance with the audience at Philadelphia’s Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Penn Treaty Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal