‘A survival story’: American Indians celebrate their history at Grand Prairie event

Published in The Dallas Morning News on Sept. 27, 2015

GRAND PRAIRIE — Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache from McAllen, led a jubilant Apache song at the Chickasaw-owned Lone Star Park on Saturday morning to open Everlasting Fire, an event commemorating Texas’ annual American Indian Heritage Day.

The day was set aside by state law three years ago as a time for American Indians to promote their culture and stand up for tolerance and rights. In addition to songs and dancing, the day included discussions about the Indian Child Welfare Act and the legacy of American Indians.

After the song, Lydia Gonzales led attendees in an opening prayer, followed by Soto’s request in song for God’s guidance.

American Indians remain far from having equal rights, Soto said, asserting that he experiences discrimination every day.

“Today, you’ll see the story of native Indians is a survival story,” he said. “We have survived what some call the greatest genocide in all human history.”

American Indians and Alaska natives made up 1 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Soto said he hopes celebrations like Everlasting Fire will encourage American Indians in areas like Dallas “to unite and get more tribes the recognition they need for governmental privileges.”

“We need to make our voices heard,” said Peggy Larney, founder of American Indian Heritage Day.

It starts, she said, with letting others know that American Indians are still part of society.

“Many people in the Dallas area think we died. … So we want them to know we still live here,” she said. “This day is very important historically because many others don’t realize genocide happened in their own country.”

Larney said the heritage day aims to help younger generations feel pride in their culture’s history.

“We have youth working together to promote native Indian pride and nationalism, which for a while was suppressed,” she said. “But they’re coming out now and becoming leaders in their cities.”

Stephanie Vielle, who grew up on a Blackfoot Indian reservation in Montana, said the fight for tolerance begins between tribes. If tribes are struggling to understand one another’s customs, they shouldn’t expect non-American Indians to understand tribal cultures either, she said.

Vielle said military service is one avenue through which younger American Indians are finding renewed interest in their heritage.

“In the military, they reinforce military culture,” she said. “So, like me, many native veterans have to undo themselves from that and reconnect with their native tribes like an outsider, which makes you appreciate other tribes.”

Cliff Queton, a Crowley resident of Kiowa Indian heritage, said he enjoys celebrations like Saturday’s. He and his two grandsons set up a teepee outside the venue.

“This is just a taste of native Indian culture,” Queton said, “but we enjoy that people can learn about a culture that isn’t their own.”

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