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Indigenous Peoples' Day Joins Columbus Day

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City of Pensacola
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Poarch Creek flag flies at Pensacola City Hall

Monday was the official Columbus Day holiday, but for many it’s also Indigenous Peoples Day, honoring the nation’s Native American tribes and people. Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson hosted such a ceremony at City Hall.

“Too often, too long we picture ‘Indian’ as something only 200 years ago; I think it’s very important to know that individuals who are descendants of our Creek Indians that were here in Northwest Florida are still here today,” said the mayor.

The city’s namesake — the Pensacola Indians — lived in what is now the Florida Panhandle and eastern Alabama for centuries, before their first contact with Europeans in the early 18th century. They spoke Muskogean and lived here until the mid-1700s when they were assimilated into other tribes.

“We still recognize Columbus Day on the day,” Robinson said. “We don’t think it’s one thing or the other — we think it’s important that there’s an Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and that’s what we recognize today. I think that’s the importance of what we do here at the city of Pensacola. I’m not saying we do everything perfect; this is the way we chose to do it.”

While Christopher Columbus’ voyage is a critical part of American history, there’s so much more on this side of the pond from Native Americans.

“It has to do with unity and working together and all of the things that happened from our tribes here that helped them create and colonize, and bring us where we are today,” said State Rep. Michelle Salzman (R-Pensacola), who’s also a member of the Santa Rosa Poarch Creek Tribe.

“Pensacola has a very rich history, and it’s such an incredible place to be; I would not want to be anywhere else in the world except here,” she said. “That we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the diversity of the creation of this community, and the continued partnerships in this community.”

“OK, you guys already know what to do; hees-jay ess-ton-go,” said Dan “Sky Horse” Helms, chief of the Santa Rosa Creeks, speaking in Muskogen. The audience’s response was inka.

“Thank you. I said, ‘hello, how are you?’ And everyone said, ‘good’ said Helms.

He told the audience that names such as “Indian;” “Native American,” and “indigenous” are European inventions.

“Before the European incursion, we simply called ourselves, ‘people,’” Helms said. “We were people of the mountains, people of the rivers, people of the plains, but we were just people. Where are these indigenous people now? Well, one of them might be right next to you; or it might be you.”

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City of Pensacola
State Rep. Michelle Salzman, Mayor Grover Robinson and Chief Dan “Sky Horse” Helms, Santa Rosa Creek Indian Tribe.

Many prominent Pensacola families today, says the chief, can trace some of their roots back to those who were here before the Spanish, English, French, Confederacy, and the United States.

“Some of those are the Hopkins family; the Browns, the Emanuels, the Devereauxs, the Baracos — all prominent Pensacola families,” Helms said. “That have been here – most – since the beginning of Pensacola.”

One reason people today don’t realize who they are, says Helms, is because of the stereotype that he says is “indelibly etched” in people’s minds by Hollywood.

“We are not monosyllabic-speaking men, nor women being portrayed as being sexually available to white men,” said Helms. “The stereotyping has frozen the image of the Native American in a 200-year-old time warp. We are not there anymore.”

Many are calling to replace Columbus Day with a holiday called “Indigenous Peoples Day.” But Chief Dan “Sky Horse” Helms is not one of them.

“I have been asked many times if I would like for us to do away with Columbus Day; my answer is a resounding ‘no,’” he said. “Because I am guaranteed one day a year, that I can come and tell the story of what has happened to our people.”

President Joe Biden last week became the first U.S. president to issue a proclamation for Indigenous Peoples' Day — to be celebrated concurrently with Columbus Day.