No one knows quite what to expect when the tiny community of Akron/Newstead makes history Monday with the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day.
The schedule includes Native Americans saying their traditional Thanksgiving prayer, traditional singing and dancing, as well as an art show and, of course, speeches. The town also will unveil its new town seal, and traditional Native and American food will be served.
“A culture that has been here hundreds of years before us will be celebrated,” said Newstead Councilman Justin Rooney, who first proposed the day in Newstead.
That was the goal in May when the town unanimously designated the second Monday of October, otherwise known as Columbus Day, as Indigenous Peoples Day. It became one of the few communities in the nation recognizing the day.
The small rural community in the northeast corner of Erie County includes a portion of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation and is the first in the area, and perhaps the state, to designate a day to recognize the contributions of Native Americans. It joins Seattle and Minneapolis in designating Indigenous Peoples Day. South Dakota recognizes the second Monday in October as Native Americans Day, an official state holiday.
The Village of Akron and Akron Central School District did the same, and the village and town of Lewiston this fall also proclaimed Monday Indigenous Peoples Day.
“It’s really a great step forward, It has a lot to do with peace and friendship,” said Rebecca Parker, a Native American who is program director for health service needs for the Tonawanda Band of Senecas. “A lot of our history has not been told.”
Several hundred Native Americans from throughout the state and southern Ontario have been invited to the event.
The committee putting together the program sought art show submissions from residents on what Indigenous Peoples Day means to them, in recognition that not everyone will understand or endorse the day. The school district will recognize the Akron varsity lacrosse team, which won the Section 6 title and went on to state competition in the traditional native game.
“If we don’t consider everyone’s position in this, we are not going to achieve peace,” Parker said.
The Senecas are touched by the designation, and want to show appreciation to those who made it possible. Gary Parker will sing a song of honor in appreciation for the designation.
The arts and craft show opens at 10 a.m. Monday in Russell Park in Akron, where all events will take place. Opening remarks are scheduled for 10:30 a.m., and Seneca students will recite the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address at 10:40 a.m. Presentations are scheduled at 11 a.m., followed by a Seneca speaker, lunch, singing and dancing. Closing remarks will be made at 1:45 p.m., followed by the Thanksgiving address.
“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” Rooney said. “We really haven’t gotten a lot of traditional or honor songs. They haven’t gotten too many proclamations.”
“It’s an honor to be recognized, and we’re happy to share our culture with our neighbors,” Parker said. “It’s the biggest step we can make toward peace.”