KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Ask any local, they’ll tell you East Tennessee is an old place. There are histories and roots set down here of people whose legacies are enduring in many ways.
While parts of East Tennessee historically belonged to Indigenous tribes such as the Creek, Yuchi and Cherokee, historians and tribal leaders are aiming to promote and interpret that local history in order to honor legacies and grow futures. East Tennessee is also home today to a growing population of Indigenous Maya from Central America who contribute to the local economy while honoring their roots.
Monday marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day, celebrating all people who are indigenous to the Americas, which stretch from North America to Central and South America; land also explored and colonized by Europeans. U.S. President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which was simultaneously observed on the federal holiday celebrating Columbus Day.
There’s a growing discussion and even tension about modern-day views of the explorer Christopher Columbus (also known in Spain as Cristobal Colón) and how his arrival began centuries of exploration, colonization to the Americas by European nations along with violence, enslavement and disease to native people already living in the Western Hemisphere — and why some governments still celebrate him. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1937.
Amid all the discussion and debate, Indigenous people and their descendants still endure. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which is based in the region, bought the land known as the Qualla Boundary from the U.S. government and it’s kept in trust by the federal government. Many Cherokee tribe members are descendants of Trail of Tears survivors; while others never marched west and remained in the area. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribe has more than 14,000 members today.
The Cherokee are not the only Indigenous people residing in the region. There’s a growing population of Indigenous Maya and Latinos in the area, living and working to make their way and contribute.
Luci Diego, an Indigenous Maya Guatemalan-American, has shared before about her experience in East Tennessee and her goals to bridge language divides and create a positive environment for youth. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Diego, dressed in her traje tradicional and standing with her young daughter, shared her joy in the U.S. president’s proclamation.
“I think it’s a great way to make aware that Indigenous people are here and we’re still here after thousands of years,” Diego said. “We’re finally being recognized and being able to express our culture.”
Diego, who speaks Alkateco, English and Spanish, works as a youth support specialist at Centro Hispano de East Tennessee and often helps many local Indigenous Maya navigate language barriers and integration. Knox County Schools recently said at the start of Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month that there were hundreds of students who speak Indigenous Mayan languages. Diego sometimes acts as an interpreter, which became a vital role amid the COVID-19 pandemic in order to share information.
The commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day was something she thought was a positive step.
“It’s important to know that here in the U.S., people are wanting to celebrate Indigenous people,” Diego said.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day falls within Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. Additional stories including our 2021 Hispanic Heritage Special can be viewed here. Native American Heritage Month is in November.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report (re. Columbus Day).