What Does it Mean to Be Indigenous in the 21st Century?

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we are hosting a series of profiles and stories to amplify and honor people, businesses, organizations, stories, and projects connected to Seattle’s Indigenous community.

Words and video by D.A. Navoti

My artwork starts with the question: What does it mean to be Indigenous in the 21st century?

My name is D.A. Navoti and I am a member of the Gila River Indian Community, a descendant of Hopi, Zuni, Akimel O’otham, and Yavapai-Apache tribes. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, my creative work seeks to understand contemporary Indigenous identities, particularly my own. Therefore, I often investigate my past to identify what shaped me. And there’s no better time for self-exploration than Native American Heritage Month.

Every November is Native American Heritage Month, and United States President Joe Biden released his proclamation encouraging Americans to “observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities,” as well as to “celebrate November 26, 2021, as Native American Heritage Day.”

To celebrate the traditions and cultural spark of Native people means recognizing, first, the histories we rise from. My own tribal history is uplifted by curiosity; I come from a family of cultural creatives, educators, and healers/medical professionals. What came before us, of course, is a marred saga that is emotionally difficult to summarize. “Colonialism” – a politically loaded and violent term – is a popular word choice that unfairly condenses the histories of Native people. To associate or box thousands of years of Indigenousness in a single word is unfair and dangerous. Instead, my artistic hope is to use creativity as an antithesis to “colonialism” – both its usage and inference – through inspired storytelling. And the story I share, called October Headlines, involves the Indigenous calendar, so to speak.

iCalendar = Indigenous Calendar

Preceding Native American Heritage Month is Orange Shirt Day in September. Orange Shirt Day honors survivors of residential boarding schools that assimilated Native children into Euro-American culture for over two hundred years. Orange Shirt Day was established in 2013 by First Nations leaders in Canada, and the annual observance has gained momentum in the U.S. with community marches, events, and educational awareness.

And in May is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (#MMIWG), which aims for accountability for violence against Native women and girls. According to Native Womens Wilderness, 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls has been reported as of 2016. Yet the U.S. Department of Justice missing persons database reports only 116 cases. This movement also seeks justice for violence against Two Spirit and LGBTQ people.

I ask again: what does it mean to be Indigenous in the 21st century?

The annual observances for residential school survivors and missing and murdered Native persons are opportunities for non-Native people to grasp but not answer what it means to be Indigenous. I, myself, still search for an answer as I investigate (and emotionally spin out of control from) the historical and present-day atrocities against Native people. But what gives me relief and hope is a third “iCalendar” event: Indigenous Peoples’ Day every October.

October Headlines

For Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2017, I remember posting photos and sharing articles on social media celebrating my Indigenousness. What caught my attention, however, were news headlines about the annual observance:

  • Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Italians Say Stick with Columbus by AP News
  • Why ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ Is Far Worse Than Columbus Day in The Federalist
  • Just before Columbus Day, journal pulls controversial article defending colonialism in The Washington Post

What surprised me wasn’t a news cycle questioning the value or purpose of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Instead, this pushback was predictable, stereotypical even. Afterall, the histories behind Orange Shirt Day and #MMIWG were systemically calculated. But I collected these news headlines and began writing, because, sadly, these headlines felt as if they were antagonists.

I published October Headlines as an experimental essay in the now defunct Indigenous literary journal Cloudthroat. With financial support from NDN Collective, I extended the life of my essay by transforming my words into a short film.

So, what does it mean to be Indigenous in the 21st century? My search for answers is lifelong. But I am pleased to debut October Headlines with the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods for Native American Heritage Month, with the hope that viewers see the richness and diversity of Native people.


Native American man with short, dark hair, blue t-shirt and brown jacket. he is standing outside and smiling toward camera.
D.A. Navoti is a member of the Gila River Indian Community and a multidisciplinary storyteller and writer. His work has appeared in Homology Lit, Spartan, Indian Country Today, Cloudthroat, and elsewhere. He curates We the Indigenous, a West Coast literary series, and founded Wellness-ish-ness: a blog for creative hot messes. Learn more at www.danavoti.com.

This piece was commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained herein do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas of the City of Seattle.