John Waconda standing in front of mountains.
John Waconda In 2021, TNC in New Mexico hired John Waconda of the Pueblo of Isleta as the first-ever Indigenous Partnership program director. © Roberto Rosales

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New Mexico Celebrates Indigenous Peoples' Days

TNC staff reflect on awareness holidays as opportunities for growth.

We look forward in New Mexico to celebrating Indigenous Peoples and have two special holidays to do so this year, first with Indigenous Peoples' Day on August 9 and then with North America Indigenous Peoples Day on October 10. The holidays celebrate and honor Native American people, commemorate their histories and cultures, and encourage young people to feel pride in their place and people who've been here for millennia.

While The Nature Conservancy grapples with its own history, we recognize respect for people, communities and cultures is a core value of the world's largest conservation organization. Enduring conservation success depends on the active involvement of people and partners whose lives and livelihoods are linked to the natural systems we seek to conserve. We forge relationships based on mutual benefit and trust. Our work with Indigenous Peoples is also guided by following these principles.

In 2021, TNC in New Mexico hired John Waconda of the Pueblo of Isleta as the first-ever Indigenous Partnership program director. He came out of retirement because he saw many opportunities to build more bridges. Together, we can create a more sustainable future by protecting our land and water.

We asked John what this holiday means to him:

"It is important to honor our history of survival in many facets facing the challenges our people have endured and overcome. All over the world Indigenous People still encounter threats to our culture, tradition, language and equality.

"I am proud to have been taught and guided by many in my family and the community about the importance of overcoming our many challenges. I remember the adversities my forefathers faced and how important it is to continue our traditions and teachings to our future generations. 

"The current state of the environment and climate change reminds us that the protection of our environment, our Mother Earth, is so important, because without clean air and water we will cease as a people. It is the core of who we are as a people, responsible for caring for all creatures of life.

"I respect and value every day the blessings bestowed to us as individuals and as a community to share our love and care to all, so that we may live in peace, in light of all the challenges we face."

A woman with pulled back, dark hair and large earrings wearing a blue shirt looks at the camera.

Earlier this year, TNC hired Brie Fraley from the Village of Yontocket as the director for the Indigenous Peoples and Landscapes Program. She also sat down to share a heartfelt message about this holiday:

in·dig·e·nous (adj)

"I like the root definition from the Latin word, indigena, where it translates to sprung from the land, native. It makes so much sense to me, as an Indigenous Person from the village of Yontocket, the place of my people’s genesis."

“In my tribal language the word for earth is nvn-nvst-a and the word body is nvste. Meaning we come from the Earth, we spring from this place. In my Indigenous worldview, humans are not dominant and separate from the gifts of nature; we are equal to and live in a reciprocal relationship with the land. It is our responsibility to look after and care for all our relations as they in return care for us.

“What a beautiful sentiment that has been eroded with a vengeance from hundreds of years of destruction from the domination of the ‘discovery of America,’ and even worse the celebration of that destruction via most major holidays. Was I happy when woke allies across counties, cities and states recognized the harm of celebrating Columbus Day? Yes, I was. In fact, I helped author the first proclamation of Indigenous Peoples' Day for the city that was erected on top of mass graves of my ancestors. Acknowledgment of our country's past is the first step toward healing, but Indigenous Peoples' Day is not enough.

“Indigenous Peoples' Day is a gesture to acknowledge that we as America got it wrong. The celebration of the ‘discovery of America’ via Columbus Day was the dominant narrative of white settler colonialism that has perpetuated the erasure of Indigenous Peoples across what is now called the Americas. Indigenous Peoples have suffered to near extinction in the name of manifest destiny, resulting in fractured communities and lifeways. The dominant narrative that instills pride in the ‘discovery of America’ has sought to remove any semblance of Indigenous civilizations pre-contact.

“Thinking of the long and slow, painful transition away from celebrating Columbus to the recognition and celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day is a nod to the first peoples and, for the majority, just another day to market a sale on a big-screen TV. The day off is not enough. We need to lean in as responsible citizens of our country and seek to find healing through action. Reach out and seek to understand how the several hundred years of colonizers flooding the Americas have caused harm to Indigenous cultures and economies.

“Once you have learned about the harm caused by colonization, ask yourself how can we come together and identify solutions to the harms of our American systems that have criminalized, oppressed, removed and assimilated Indigenous Peoples?

“Indigenous communities are actively working to bring the embers of our culture together to create a healthy flame. Indigenous Peoples' Day to me is just another day where we are asked to educate and often make the dominate culture feel good about the one day. For me, my celebration comes in our harvest, in our ceremony and through being with community. To me, every day is Indigenous Peoples' Day.”

We’re grateful to John and Brie for sharing their genuine sentiments as we listen and learn to seek understanding and guidance.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.