Photo by Gabriel Dalton of person marching with sign that reads facing the truth of past and present violence

My Hopes for Indigenous Peoples’ Day

By Yolonda P. Harrison

When I started consulting years ago, very few of my client organizations observed Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  In fact, the majority of those organizations only recognized Columbus Day.  Today, all of the organizations I choose to work with acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day and some do so in lieu of Columbus Day.  This change may, in part, be attributed to President Joseph R. Biden’s proclamation in 2021, which marked the first time an American president recognized the day and emphasized its importance to organizations, large and small.  However, many others have worked since the 1970s to make Indigenous Peoples’ Day a reality. 

Prior to Biden’s proclamation, there were multiple states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin) as well as the District of Columbia and hundreds of cities that recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States.  However, until recently, organizations would rarely take the initiative to reflect, recognize, celebrate, or educate employees on the importance of the contributions of Indigenous peoples.  For many, the federal recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day feels like progress.  And advocacy groups who worked to make that proclamation happen, such as Arizona’s Indigenous Peoples’ Initiative, contend that Indigenous Peoples’ Day helps to correct a “history” full of false, negative narratives and stereotypical tropes about Native Americans.  

For me, the recognition of this day also brings up a pain point of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) – empty gestures.  Despite the federal recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I feel that Indigenous perspectives, experiences, and stories are still too often excluded in workplaces.  When I started YPH Consulting, I promised that I would consistently explain how not investing resources into recruiting, hiring, and retaining Indigenous team members perpetuates various harms of colonialism – from the loss of Indigenous culture to economic inequality to systemic racism.  I vowed that I would do my best to convey how an organization’s lack of Indigenous representation can make Indigenous Peoples’ Day observances and land acknowledgements feel like “diversity dishonesty.”  And although I will continue to advocate for Indigenous inclusion in DEIB work, the lack of receptiveness is sometimes astounding.  

In the United States, there are 574 federally recognized Tribal Nations and over 60 state-recognized tribes.  The 2020 Census showed that approximately 3.7 million people in the U.S. identify as American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone and 5.9 million identify as AI/AN combined with another race.  However, it is estimated that AI/AN workers make up only 1.8 percent of the U.S. workforce.  And the lack of accurate, up-to-date data on AI/AN employment further maintains the exclusion of Indigenous peoples.  For example, researchers have found that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job reports consistently exclude Native Americans and as a consequence, they are frequently left out of important economic analyses and discussions. 

Indigenous folks are often excluded from DEIB analyses and discussions as well.  Representation (or diversity) has been linked to improved mental health, job performance, and innovation in the workplace.  However, when many organizations focus on increasing diversity – Indigenous workers are not part of the strategic plan.  For example, in 2020, a multitude of companies committed to advancing racial equity and promoting anti-racism, however, those efforts typically focused on AAPI, Black, and Latino/a/e/x communities, not AI/AN communities.  Since 2020, many companies have removed antiquated degree requirements to increase candidate pools in light of labor shortages.  However, these companies never considered doing so prior to the Great Resignation, even though only 20 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives attain a bachelor’s degree or higher in the U.S. due to systemic, structural, and institutional barriers to higher education.  And for organizations that retained degree requirements, many expanded recruitment to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions) but still do not recruit at TCUs (Tribal Colleges and Universities) or connect with Indigenous affinity groups at numerous state colleges and universities.

Over the past twenty-plus years, hiring bias studies have been conducted in an effort to make organizational stakeholders and hiring committees more cognizant of biases that impact the selection of AAPI, Black, and Latino/a/e/x applicants.  However, very few of these studies assess, identify, or recommend interventions regarding biases held toward Indigenous applicants.  In addition, research has shown that increased intergroup contact can reduce the prevalence of implicit bias, microaggressions, and stereotypes in an environment; and subsequently, improve the workplace climate and mental health of individuals who are underrepresented.  However, AI/AN persons in the U.S. report experiencing psychological distress 2.5 times more than the general population and 34 percent feel that they (or a family member) have been threatened or harassed due to their race.  Perhaps, one reason such disparate treatment continues to thrive is because much of bias and microaggression training curricula excludes the impact of the cycle of bias and racial discrimination on AI/AN communities.

Some DEIB practitioners believe that BIPOC have moved beyond “diversity” and that the work is now truly about equity and belonging.  However, many who are Indigenous are still in dire need of representation across virtually all job sectors.  Interestingly, Native Americans serve in the U.S. military more than other racial/ethnic groups today and historically, Native Americans have held high participation in the U.S. military (even before many were granted the right to vote).  These are facts that are routinely discussed each November as this country holds elections, honors Native American Heritage Month, and commemorates Veterans’ Day.  However, as fall approaches, I find myself mainly discussing how egregious it is that Indigenous DEIB is still not a priority for most organizations.

While I am relieved that Indigenous Peoples’ Day has become more mainstream, and I celebrate the “win” for all who fought for this day of recognition, my hope is that it will not become an empty gesture or simply “a day off.”  

I hope that individuals and organizations will take the time to: 

  • learn, recognize, and impart accurate, Indigenous-centered stories of the past and present; 
  • recruit, hire, retain, include, and proactively support Indigenous peoples in workplaces; and 
  • join and participate in broader social movements to achieve racial equity and economic justice for Indigenous communities.

In 2023, I hope that when I ask prospective clients how many Indigenous team members they have, I won’t routinely be told “zero” with a tone that lacks urgency or concern.  I hope that when I ask organizational stakeholders how they are supporting Indigenous communities (internally and externally), I won’t receive blank stares that only accentuate the continued erasure of Indigenous and Native peoples within U.S. society.  And I hope that people will finally stop asking me (and others) to “powwow” on any issue.

*Photo by Gabriel Dalton on Unsplash