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An Opportunity To Start 'Correcting The Record': What Indigenous People's Day Means To Me

Emily Aguilar is a teacher, community organizer and artist living in the Montopolis neighborhood of Austin. She is also a member of the Coahuiltecan people.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Emily Aguilar is a teacher, community organizer and artist living in the Montopolis neighborhood of Austin. She is also a member of the Coahuiltecan people.

My name is Emily Aguilar; I go by Emi. I'm a teacher, a community organizer and a theater artist. And I'm also Coahuiltecan. My ancestors have been in what is currently Texas and Northern Mexico since the beginning of time. The Coahuiltecan people are currently and historically many bands of people that are collectively known as Coahuiltecan. And that's where my people descend from.

My father is Indigenous Mexican. Visually, he looks very Indigenous; he has very long black hair that he braids down his back and he's dark skinned. And then my mother is white. I just recently learned that she's of Celtic ancestry, which makes it interesting because it makes sense why I have some red hair.  

I understood that I'm both Mexican-American and I'm Native American. I can be all of those things at once.

My father was very proud of being Indigenous. You could tell just in the way that he would carry himself, the way that he wore his hair. He wore it very traditional and he took pride in his hair. And something that – I don't know if it's still a practice – when he was incarcerated, they would chop off all of his hair. So when he would come back home, he wouldn't have his long hair anymore. I remember that was something that as a child was very traumatic for me, seeing my father, who I thought was a strong person with a strong identity, without his hair.

Many Indigenous people, we take pride in our hair and we're taught that our hair carries our power and our spirit. And when you're braiding your hair, you're supposed to think good thoughts.

My father was adopted by Mexican-American parents in El Paso, and they were very traditionally Mexican-American. I think he had some confusion about whether or not he could identify as Mexican, because I just remember growing up, he would say he wasn't Mexican, that he was Indigenous. He also wouldn't speak Spanish around us.

That was definitely confusing to me because I understood that I'm both Mexican-American and I'm Native American. I can be all of those things at once.

Taking Pride In Your Identity

I grew up on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, which is a very southern part of Arizona on the border with Mexico. I went to school with a lot of Native kids, but they were of that particular nation. I'm not of that nation, so I felt like I couldn't really say that I was also Native. I took a step back in terms of how I identified.

My mom moved me and my siblings to New York, [where I attended] a school where it was mostly white students. So, I felt like as part of my survival, I had to be really proud of my identities.

I had never been in predominantly white spaces until we moved to New York. Where we were was right in Ithica area, on the Iroquois Nation. And I don't think that people there had seen a family that looks like mine. My family is very mixed in terms of race and ethnicity, so I think that we looked kind of like an anomaly in that community. We would get a lot of racial slurs on the bus and in school and things that I had never heard growing up in Arizona.

I moved back to Texas for grad school with my partner at the time. I wanted to be in Texas because I can trace my family here. My father is from here. His ancestors are from here. I wanted to feel rooted somewhere. And I've been here since. 

I would say that I never felt at home anywhere except here. Even though I was born in Arizona, I definitely felt like a visitor there. And even though I spent many years in New York, I never felt comfortable there at all. I also have a whole community here. I've been able to connect with people here and just feel more connected to my culture and my identity and food and land and medicine and ceremonies and things that I wouldn't have access to if I was in New York.

One experience that sticks with me, that has been really formative in reconnecting me with the land and with myself and with my people, is when I was with Maria Rocha and Dr. [Mario] Garza, who are two of my elders. They lead the Indigenous Cultures Institute and are [also] elders for the Miakan-Garza Band of the Coahuiltecan people. They took a group of young people, as part of summer camp that I was helping with, and we went to the Sacred Springs in San Marcos. Many people know the Sacred Springs as Aquarena Springs, but the Sacred Springs are actually a sacred site.

We're taught that those springs are where our creation story begins. So, it was really special to go there for the first time, especially with young people who are also Coahuiltecan and are learning to identify that way, and are learning about their right to access this space and learning about who they are through their connection with the sacred water and with the land. It was a really beautiful intergenerational moment, and that's something that has stuck with me. 

One Day Is Not Enough

There are several major events happening that are affecting various Indigenous nations throughout the U.S. and Canada and Mexico. One that is really dire is that the Trump administration is building a border wall right through [the O'odham] Nation. It's desecrating sacred sites. There are land defenders there that are trying to interrupt this construction project. And I know that they really need more people to be there in solidarity. Some people have gotten arrested.

There's a border wall being built through their graves. There's a border wall being built through their lands that they have a right to have free access to. And they also have a constitutional protection to express their religion and practice their religion. And they're getting arrested for that, for expressing that right. I think that if there were other people doing the same thing, if there were white people praying in public they would not be arrested. It just doesn't happen.

It's interesting because for most of us that are Indigenous people, Indigenous People's Day is every day, right? Because we're never not Indigenous. So it's just funny sometimes to have certain days.

It's a good day for people to take it upon themselves, if they're not Indigenous, to learn about issues and ways that they can be helpful. But I do think that it's not awesome that there's only one day in what's currently the United States of America, which is Native land. So there's only one day that we honor Native people. I wish that it was part of our school's curriculum, and I wish that it was part of our "American culture" to just honor Native people every day.

With Indigenous People's Day, it's an opportunity for people to start correcting the record and to start correcting their language and the words that are coming out of their mouths. I think that oftentimes when people speak about Indigenous people and they speak about Native Americans, they use past tense language and we are present tense people, and it's not OK to speak about us in past tense. We're still surviving today and we're still here today.

Produced for broadcast by Riane Roldan. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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