Indigenous Peoples Day at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge

 October 14, 2019 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

As New Mexico commemorated the first state-wide celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, participated by hosting a celebration alongside the Rio Grande River. Rosie Thunderchief (Navajo/Diné, Pawnee, Arapaho, Ho-Chunk, Lakota and current Ancestral Lands Tribal VISTA) organized the celebration in partnership with 516 ARTS, Flower Hill Institute, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center & Southwest Conservation Corps – Ancestral Lands Program, the event was part of Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande.

The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is the first of its kind to be established in the Southwest. The 570 acres was purchased in 2011 by the Trust for Public Land and transferred to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2012. It contains a working farm, miles of recreational paths, and access to the Bosque of the Rio Grande River.

The warm fall sun had begun to sink into the sandy West Mesa as we drove from downtown to the South Valley of Albuquerque. This cross-section of our community is where our land comes alive shattering through the concrete jungle of asphalt and developed gated communities turning into vast tracks of farms and natural Bosque along the Rio Grande River. The songs of the birds welcomed us as they flew by our windows.

The celebration at the refuge called to my soul as all other events were centered in the city. I was drawn to the outdoors where our languages would once again echo through the sacred Cottonwoods that protect the living water. We arrived with the rush of city life propelling us into a scene of calm, serenity, and a slow drive on a white-sanded road toward the entrance of the Bosque.

Instructions to the event explained that attendees should allow for at least 30 minutes to drive through slowly. The leisure drive through the refuge was marked with signs of information educating drivers in Indigenous People History. The first sign marked the arrival of European explorers and the impact it had to the Indigenous Peoples. The last sign marked the establishment of Indigenous People’s Day 527 years later. There were four rows of cars with roughly 100 attendees. As we walked from our car we were overrun by a flock of geese 50 feet above saluting our celebration with exuberant honking. The orange / purple glow of the setting grandfather sun illuminated the clouds above, we wondered if our people had seen the same sunsets.

Discussions to replace the celebration of Columbus Day began during the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas began in 1977. However, it was not until 1989 when Lynn Hart and Governor Mickelson backed a resolution in South Dakota to recognize the day in lieu of Columbus Day. On the 500-year anniversary of Columbus Day, Berkeley California inaugurated the celebration by adopting Indigenous Peoples Day at the urging of the Bay Area Indian Alliance, also known as Resistance 500, which vehemently opposed a federally sponsored celebration of the reenactment of the arrival of Columbus in the San Francisco Bay. 

The spirit of resistance was healthy and well at Valle de Oro as Eddie Paul Torres (former Governor, farmer and rancher, Isleta Pueblo), Brophy Toledo (Cultural Leader, Jemez Pueblo, Flower Hill Institute), Roger Fragua (Jemez Pueblo, Flower Hill Institute), Shannon Romero (Cochiti Pueblo/Kewa/Dine/Chicana, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center), Julia Bernal (Sandia Pueblo and Yuchi/Creek, Co-director, Pueblo Action Alliance) spoke in one voice about the importance of honoring the Earth, its people and all life upon it.

The event commenced with a celebration meal of traditional Indigenous Food. Thunderchief explained that the menu reflected the pre-colonial diet of the region Corn, Bison, Chile, and Squash. As the community settled in to their seats with food in hand Thunderchief read a poem reflecting her version of manifest destiny using the ancient genocidal concept to empower her own manifesting of a return to Indigenous life. Toledo blessed us and explained the importance and sacred role fire plays as he ignited it. She then introduced the panel of speakers. The panel was read questions, and each were allowed to respond. Speaking their respective languages each speaker introduced themselves, stated their intentions and represented their pueblo’s values in a series of speeches which focused on the dire need to return to Indigenous methods to heal the earth from the damage inflicted by the modern world.

The colors of the sunset radiated pink against the Mountain Range to the East. The echo of the voices from the speakers flooded the Bosque with Indigenous words and I wondered if our ancestors had returned from the riverbanks to celebrate and honor the first celebration of our day. The sun vanished from sight and the last flock of geese left for the river as the children dancers from Jemez Pueblo prepared themselves. Over 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, the establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day positively marks a new place in New Mexico’s history.

The signs remained on the road as we left, a reminder that to understand the present we must know our past. Our past is rich with culture, peace, harmony, mystery, healing, and a natural science of sustaining our existence on a planet of abundance. The Mountain Range has stood witness to the arrival of the modern world and will witness our destiny to reclaim our lands, one acre at a time, one spoken word at a time, one danced step at a time, and each year on the second Monday of every October my family will celebrate our ability to thrive and flourish against any and all challenges, modern or traditional. The bird’s songs at dusk tempted our stay but there are asphalt jungles in the city that must be shattered.

For more information on the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, please visit

Jessica is a second-year law student at UNM School of Law. She is a member of the Chihene Nde Nation of New Mexico. The Chihene are descendants of Apache people throughout Southern and Central New Mexico. The tribe is not federally recognized but is dedicated to the preservation of their language, culture, traditions, including protecting historic and sacred sites.

By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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