Indigenous Peoples Day
Ruth Krishnan

I don’t know the Akimel O’otham word for “chutzpah,” but Phoenix Vice Mayor Kate Gallego hopefully marked Indigenous Peoples Day this week by finding out.

On Oct. 6, Gallego issued a news release hailing herself and her City Council colleagues for making Phoenix the nation’s largest city to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day.

“Our tribal communities formed the original settlements in Phoenix, and one cannot consider the history, the heritage, or the roots of our city without acknowledging that those roots are firmly grounded in the centuries of indigenous culture in the Salt River Valley,” she declared.

“Tribal nations are critical partners for the City of Phoenix as investors, neighbors, and as communities of residents who are absolutely vital to Phoenix,” she added, noting, “Our identity is inextricably linked to our tribal communities, and it is important that we recognize that.”

Although Indigenous Peoples Day, celebrated the second Monday of October, won’t cost city taxpayers any money, Gallego also said, “It is a commemoration I expect us to take seriously.”

I read the release with amusement, assuming that was its purpose. Then I was taken aback by her expectation.

Because I remembered another release Gallego issued on Aug. 19, within hours of U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa’s rejection of ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​the O’otham Tribe’s effort to stop construction of the South Mountain Freeway because it will desecrate a site they have held sacred for centuries—namely, South Mountain.

Without any prodding from news organizations, both Gallego and Councilman Michael Nowakowski issued separate releases praising the judge’s ruling.

“This freeway will not only relieve one of the most heavily congested stretches of highway in the state, it will usher in transformative long-range economic development for the city and region,” Gallego gushed.

“Our community and economic development team has developed a strategy to attract and generate high-wage advanced manufacturing and advanced business services jobs along the corridor,” she added, solemnly proclaiming:

“It’s time to respect the will of voters and build the South Mountain Freeway to finally complete the Loop 202.”​

I guess it isn’t time to respect the wishes of people who were here a long time before we were.

I asked through a spokesman if Gallego cared to reconcile her expectation that we take Indigenous Peoples Day seriously with her unsolicited praise for a freeway that the indigenous people of the Gila River Indian Community consider more than a slap in the face.

He checked and replied Gallego had “nothing to add on this.”

Several leaders of the Akimel O'otham tribe were not so bashful.

Linda Paloma Allen, who broke down and cried before the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee at an Aug. 22 meeting as she detailed how tearing a 200-foot gash in South Mountain would be tearing a gash in her people’s collective heart, noted that Phoenix had no problem signing off on the project.

Both she and another tribal leader, Alex Soto, noted that the Arizona Department of Transportation paid to relocate in the freeway’s path—as well they should have.

Allen wondered why highway officials recognized one sacred site “while also refusing to recognize Moadag (South Mountain) as a sacred site to indigenous tribes throughout Arizona, for thousands of years prior to the arrival of settlers. This deal was approved by Phoenix officials.”

Added Soto: “If the City of Phoenix really recognized indigenous peoples, it would have also motioned and passed a resolution against the South Mountain Freeway.”

Put aside the predictions of a great economic boom that the freeway will produce. Put aside the fact those predictions are based on population projections that freeway opponents have called suspect.

In the hundreds of pages that have flowed from hearings on the freeway, you won’t find many facts that support these predictions of a new era of prosperity. In other words, you’ll have to trust that these predictions will come true.

But no one has to trust a pol’s sanctimonious expectations of respect for a community after that same pol crows about a ruling it considers the height of disrespect.

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