Photo Essay: Indigenous Women’s Day celebrates female leadership and resilience while spotlighting ongoing struggles

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Over 100 people gathered at the Roundhouse on Saturday for the annual Indigenous Women’s Day, starting with a prayer walk through O’Ga P’Ogeh, the Tewa word for Santa Fe that the event’s organizers used, meaning “white shell water place.” It was the third year the event was held in person after pausing during the pandemic. 

“It is a day to celebrate because we are here, we have our young ladies here to show us how beautiful life can be, that they have hope, that they have dreams,” Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Democrat from Tohatchi and member of the Navajo Nation, told the crowd. “We are resilient, we are tough. We can get the work done if we have to.” 

Lawmakers and community organizers spoke about the importance of having Native women in leadership positions, as well as the ongoing struggle against colonialism. Speakers also touched on violence against Native women, environmental issues, and abortion rights.

The following photo essay was created by Bella Davis for New Mexico in Depth.

Kathy Sanchez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), in the center, offers a prayer to begin Indigenous Women’s Day at the Roundhouse on Saturday, Feb. 18. “Women are ceremony,” Sanchez said.

With burning sage in hand, Sanchez walks around the crowd while another woman hands out healing pouches containing lavender, sage, osha roots, rosebuds and seashells.
Dr. Christina Castro (Jemez/Taos Pueblo), one of the event’s organizers and co-founder of Three Sisters Collective, a Pueblo women-centered grassroots organization, shares information about Santa Fe’s history during the prayer walk. “I don’t like to use ‘history’ too much because it’s not his story, it’s our story,” Castro said. “So I’m trying to change the way I speak about things, too, to honor our part in the equation.”

“Take a look at how our culture fuels the economy of this town,” Castro said. Downtown Santa Fe is filled with stores advertising Native American jewelry, pottery, and other items.

Drivers wait as the prayer walk crosses the street. “The rules of the road don’t apply to us today,” Castro said. “These are our homelands.”

Among prayer walk participants Saturday were two women with their faces painted with red handprints. The handprints are a symbol of the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis. An FBI list last updated on Jan. 17 shows 189 missing Indigenous people in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. A state task force published a response plan last May. On February 13, Senators Shannon Pinto and Linda Lopez, and Rep. Pamelya Herndon, all Democrats, introduced Senate Bill 414 to make missing or murdered Indigenous people or their dependents eligible for compensation under the state’s Crime Victims Reparations Fund.

Attendees exit a park next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, built in the late 1800s. “These things tell stories and people who don’t know anything about us as Indigenous people, they come and they see that and that’s all they see,” Castro said. “So it’s important to keep our stories alive, to learn our languages, to pass on every piece of tradition that you know because this is what we have to contend with, these forms of architectural and actual, true violence against our people.”

The prayer walk stops in the Plaza, next to what remains of the Soldiers’ Monument, also known as the obelisk, which featured an inscription reading: “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.” Protesters toppled the obelisk on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2020. Four Santa Fe city councilors are proposing to reconstruct the obelisk, possibly by using “original pieces to show the lines where the obelisk fractured,” according to a resolution they introduced two weeks ago.

Back at the Roundhouse, tribal royalty – young women acting as ambassadors for their tribes — sit at the front of the crowd. A young girl from Zuni Pueblo (not pictured) later told the crowd she was happy to see Native women in leadership positions because it made her feel “when I grow up I can be one, too.”

A banner hanging from the third floor of the Roundhouse reads: “You are not alone. If you have been raped it is not your fault. You are not to blame.”

Organizers of the event present Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, with gifts. Lopez said the idea for Indigenous Women’s Day came about during a conversation she had with Trujillo. “What’s missing from our building, here in the Roundhouse, which is the people’s house, is our sisters, our Indigenous sisters,” Lopez said, recounting their conversation, adding that there are other days during the session to recognize the various groups that populate the state. “Those who are here today, you are New Mexico.”

Navajo Nation Vice President Richelle Montoya addresses the crowd. Montoya is the first woman to hold the position. “Not once, not one time did I think that my application was not worthy because I was a woman,” Montoya said.

Attendees sit with their eyes closed at the instruction of Andrea Toledo, an organizer with Pueblo Action Alliance, who asks the crowd to imagine being in an outdoor space where they feel safe and witnessing that space being destroyed. “…you hear the loud destruction of the land coming from beeping bulldozers and right under you, you feel the intense vibrations of the ground as a 10-foot drill sinks deeper and deeper into the ground.” Toledo talked about the negative health effects that come with oil and gas extraction.

Sen. Brenda McKenna (Nambé Pueblo), D-Corrales, spoke about gender dynamics in New Mexico’s Indigenous communities prior to colonization. “Indigenous women are natural leaders, and we could not have survived and done so well for thousands of years if we were not egalitarian societies,” McKenna said.

The crowd listens to Sen. McKenna. Several speakers noted that most of the attendees were women.

Ishi, a Taos and Ainu Japanese singer-songwriter, performs an original song after opening with a tribute for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Members of the renowned, all-women dance group Zuni Olla Maidens get ready to perform. The members dance with water jars, or ollas, balanced on top of their heads.

The Zuni Olla Maidens perform. “We pay homage to our ancestral women who centuries ago used to carry water in great big olla jars,” said Juanita Edaakie (second from the left with a hand drum). “We know it was a tiring job but they did it without complaining because they needed to, so all the songs and dances pay homage to them. But we also like to acknowledge the women today because we all have made contributions to our society.”

Correction: An earlier version of this photo essay stated that no legislation had yet been introduced in 2023 regarding missing or murdered Indigenous people. The story has been updated to reflect that on Feb. 13 legislation was filed by three Democratic lawmakers to make victims or their dependents eligible for state victim’s compensation funds.

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