By Lisa Potter, science writer, University Marketing & Communications
With the final beats of the welcoming drum call echoing throughout the Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center, Shirlee Silversmith of the Navajo (Diné) Nation, director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs, greeted families from the state’s eight Sovereign Nations, and gathered from throughout Utah, to honor the culture, heritage and history of indigenous people. The UDIA’s annual celebration marks November being designated as Native American Heritage month, and Nov. 3 as Indigenous Day in Utah. Silversmith thanked the evening’s partners and sponsors, including the Natural History Museum of Utah, Utah Division of Indian Affairs, LSI, Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake, eye Q, Utah State Board of Education, ED Direction and Hill Air Force Base.
“This annual event recognizes American Indian Heritage month, but we should be recognizing it throughout the year, and encouraging all of our children to learn about the cultures of the first people that lived on this country,” said Silversmith. “I would like to see more people recognizing that we contributed to this country. We have our own history that needs to be remembered.”
This year’s theme, Voices of the Landscape, centered around storytelling, brought alive by artists, musicians, dancers, and performances of oral traditions by the Nebo School District. The students re-enacted two traditional coyote stories that are only told during the winter-time.
“Our stories are very much a tribute to the land, and to Mother Earth, Father Sky. It’s a circle, and we are honoring all of that,” said Silversmith, who also sits on the museum’s Indian Advisory Committee. “People don’t realize that American Indians have such strong ties to the land. We view Mother Earth as something alive. When we stand upon the ground, she’s below us, holding us up. People view it in a different way than in western culture.”
Other indigenous voices, from elders to youth leaders, challenged attendees to remember their culture, to keep it sacred, and to teach their children to carry the traditions into adulthood. Rachael Holiday, Miss University of Utah American Indian Women Scholar who studies health promotion and education at the U, shared her story about the impact of pursing education while honoring her heritage has in her life. She introduced herself first in the Navajo language, then translated.
“My name is Racheal Holiday. I am of the Coyote Pass-Jemez People Clan. I am born for Black Sheep People Clan. Towering House People are my maternal grandfather’s clan. Folded Arms People are my paternal grandfather’s clan. I am a Navajo Woman. I am from Kayenta, Arizona,” she said. “As a young Navajo woman, I have always wanted to restore strength, love and support to my fellow American Indian people. Representing the Diné tribe, I understand how important education and leadership is to accomplish that.
While living here in Salt Lake, I do my best to balance my Navajo traditional background by carrying the Navajo teachings, values and prayers that I have been taught and adorned with; it has molded me into who I am today,” she continued, speaking directly to the young people in the audience. “Education takes many forms, whether that be a degree, diploma or certification, there is room to continue to learn. I may not be speaking for all when it comes to the importance of education and the many beautiful things it provides, but I am one of the many voices of this landscape we all call home.”
State representative Mark Wheatley read Gov. Gary Herbert’s annual proclamation, written every year to encourage Utahns to recognize the impact that the Sovereign Nations have on the history of Utah. Beyond November, indigenous communities strive to motivate people to learn about their culture and contributions to the country year-round.
“The eight Sovereign Nations have contributed a great deal to the state. When you talk about the history of Utah, it should begin with indigenous history — we were here first,” said Silversmith. “We had thriving communities when the pioneers came, a way of life that was holistic, based on tradition, strong positive values and family was of utmost importance to the people.”
Flip through the photo gallery to experience the event: