The city of Oakland joined the ranks of cities throughout California and the nation at their recent City Council meeting by officially recognizing the second weekend in October as Indigenous Peoples Day.

This year the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco did the same and joined about 46 other cities and some states by recognizing the holiday. The city of Berkeley was the first city to do so in 1992 and has celebrated with a city-sponsored and -funded Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow every year since then at Civic Center Park.

This official recognition by Oakland was initiated by the Merritt College Inter-tribal Student Union. The American Indian students at Merritt decided it was time for Oakland to officially recognize its Native American community’s contributions to the city. Most notable in the resolution was the recognition of the Inter Tribal Friendship House, directed by Carol Wahpepah and numerous student and community volunteers since its inception in 1955.

Other organizations honored during the council meeting, under the direction of council member Noel Gallo, were the Native American Health Center; American Indian Child Resource Center, directed by Mary Trimble-Norris; and the United Indian Nations. The resolution was read by Natalie Aguilera (Choctaw), the Native American Health Center’s chief administrative officer, and an inspiring hip-hop poem was performed by 15-year-old Mireya Smith-Mojica, aka “Lil Deya,” to the delight of all in attendance.

Danielle Spencer (Navajo/Filipina), the Merritt College Inter-tribal Student Union’s current president, said, “We wanted to request this from our City Council because we know that every other group of people in the U.S. recognizes their leaders and celebrates them with a special day except American Indians. The Bay Area represents the largest concentration of urban Native Americans. We think it is so important to recognize our part in the history of urban Indians who were relocated to San Francisco and the East Bay during the government’s Relocation Act of the 1950s.

“We are now the third and fourth generation of those early families. We are all still here; we are not gone or disappeared. The most important thing we want to accomplish now is to help identify and reach out within our communities and local high schools to help other American Indian students achieve higher education. We urban American Indians don’t receive the same financial support through scholarships and grants that reservation students get from the federal government. It’s really difficult for us.”

This student organization has been teaching potential college students still in high school how to enroll, among many other volunteer activities. These students have been extremely busy according to Maria Spencer (Filipina-American), Merritt College’s interim associate dean of educational services.

“They are volunteering at all of our local community organizations in order to encourage and support high school students to take every advantage and apply to and graduate from a four-year university. Many will attend Merritt College or one of the other Peralta colleges, then transfer to a UC (campus). The students have begun to harvest acorns around the hills in Oakland and now have a sage garden at Merritt, where they harvest and tie up the sage and gift it to our organizations.

“They have also organized many speakers and events at Merritt in order to continue to encourage themselves and other students at the college to succeed. Many members of their student club are not American Indian but are encouraged to join in order to learn more about our tribes and to foster a deeper understanding of diversity.”

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