'We are still here'
By Dana Hedgpeth and Rachel Hatzipanagos
November 19, 2021
Introduction by Dana Hedgpeth, a local reporter and member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina.
“But you don’t look like an Indian!”
I’ve heard that response more than a few times from people when they learn that I am an American Indian. I am a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, not on a reservation. In fact, our tribe doesn’t have a reservation, but my family often travels to Hollister, N.C., where the Haliwa-Saponi have their tribal homelands, for cultural gatherings or events.
It’s a common frustration for many of the country’s American Indians and Alaska Natives: People react with surprise or disbelief when we tell someone that we’re from a tribe that is Indigenous to the United States.
Many people assume all American Indians are dead; they have an image in their heads of old black-and-white photos of some western Plains Indians who performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Or they wrongly generalize that we’re all confined to reservations, living in poverty or flush with casino cash.
For many of us, the message to the rest of society is simple: “We’re still here.”
There are more than 570 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages in the United States. According to the 2020 Census, fewer than a quarter of American Indians and Alaska Natives reside on reservations or other tribal lands. Most of us — close to two-thirds — live in major cities or smaller metro regions and suburban areas.
We are represented in a wide range of professional jobs, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, authors and politicians. Many of us also continue to practice the cultural traditions of our specific tribes, teaching them to the next generation.
For Native American Heritage Month, my colleague Rachel Hatzipanagos and I talked with several American Indians and Alaska Natives about their work to remind nonnatives that we are still here.
They represent different tribes and varied professions, some working on reservations and some at major institutions in big cities around the country. They acknowledge the struggles of their people and are determined to educate their children and the public about their history and their current lives.
We invited Inupiaq photographer Brian Adams to create a visual response to our theme of “we’re still here.” He chose to document the efforts of the Indigenous Place Names Project, which looks to reclaim these Dena’ina spaces. The movement creates place markers throughout Anchorage with the names of the locations in the native Alaska language.
My husband and I have been taking our girls, ages 7 and 9, to our tribe’s annual powwow since they were babies, and a few years ago, I watched with immense pride as they independently stepped into the arena and danced on their own, without coaxing.
As my mom says, they understood that this is where they come from, and this is who they are.
As we say in our Tutelo-Saponi language, lé: maini:naǫse — “we are still here.”
Tlingit and Unangax̂ Ancestry
Nicholas Galanin wanted to make sure passersby didn’t miss his recent art display, so he chose the same lettering used for the iconic Hollywood sign to spell out his message: “Indian Land.”
The 45-foot-high installation titled “Never Forget,” which was erected in Palm Springs, Calif., from March to September, was primarily “a call for settler landowners to return land back to Indigenous communities,” said Galanin, 42, who is of Tlingit and Unangax̂ ancestry and lives in Sitka, Alaska.
Visitors to the “Never Forget” installation were asked to contribute to a GoFundMe that has raised about $50,000 for the “Landback” movement, a group that calls for returning lands to Indigenous people both literally and as a symbolic reclamation of stolen lands.
“The Land Back movement is not about removing anyone who lives here from this land,” Galanin wrote in an artist’s statement. “It’s about recognition of, and respect for Indigenous knowledge and sovereignty, and returning what was violently invaded and occupied.”
Galanin used the Hollywood sign as a reference point because it was initially an advertisement for a White-only community, put up in the 1920s by a real estate company. And he hoped it would draw attention.
“Obviously, I expected that there would be more selfies taken than contributions,” Galanin said. “But part of this work was infiltrating social media algorithms.”
The installation exemplifies the work that the artist, who uses music, video, wood, jewelry and more in his art, is known for.
Galanin, whose father and grandfather were artists, were both master carvers. “It’s embedded in my culture,” Galanin said.
In 2020, as part of his installation “Shadow on the land, an excavation and bush burial,” Galanin dug a grave in the shadow of a controversial statue of 18th-century British Royal Navy Captain James Cook in Sydney. A plaque on the statue reads that Cook “discovered” Australia, though many say that term erases Indigenous Australians.
“The work’s excavation (along with its title) suggests the burial of the Cook monument itself,” Galanin wrote in his artist’s statement.
Galanin hopes that through his work, he can challenge incorrect assumptions that some make about Native Americans — that they are long gone.
The assumptions, Galanin said, “come from years of institutional whitewashing of history, years of erasure of our history, of our communities, our stories, our place names, our knowledge.”