LAFAYETTE — Monday is National Indigenous Peoples' Day. It falls on the same day as Columbus Day, as a way to honor the people already living on the continent when Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. On Friday, President Joe Biden signed the first-ever proclamation declaring October 11 as Indigenous Peoples' Day in the United States. He's the first U.S. president to formally recognize the day.
The influence of Native American culture can be seen everywhere. In many parts of the country, rivers, towns and other landmarks still bear names originally given by native tribes.
In Louisiana, there are four federally recognized indigenous tribes, but several more are rooted in the state.
"According to our stories and legends, we only claim the last 5,000 years, but really we got here during the Paleon Indian years which is 12-15,000 years," John "Sitting-Bear" Mayeux said.
Sitting Bear is known by the government as John Mayeux, but prefers to be called by his tribal name. He's worked as the Chief of the Bear Clan in the Avogel Tribe of Louisiana for more than 30 years.
"'Avo' means flint, 'gel' means people. We were called the flint people. Avoyelles Parish was named after our tribe. I don't know why, but the French people did not like the 'g', so they changed to 'y'. Avogel became Avoyel," he explained.
He says his tribe, made up of 263 roles, is peaceful and known for trading.
"In Louisiana there is no stone, so to make arrowheads, lancers and knives, we would go up north to get flint, then when we would go trade with people," Sitting Bear added. "They would say, 'The flint people are coming.'"
Despite his retirement, Sitting Bear remains active in his tribe; however, he says, he wasn't always able to celebrate his heritage.
"In fact, when I was young we were told not to discuss it because it would invite a bullet in the back. My grandfather was an orphan by age 9 because three drunk white men decided to go Indian hunting, meaning they would kill the first Indian they came across. It just so happened to be his parents."
Indigenous Peoples' Day is a positive movement in history, but Sitting Bear says he takes it with a grain of salt. After the arrival of Christopher Columbus, 90% of the native population died due to violence and diseases.
"We helped out the first settlers that came down here, we tried to help them survive, because they didn't know how to survive. The biggest problem was the mosquitoes, because the diseases they carry. We told them the best thing to use is bear grease, but they didn't like our idea," Sitting Bear said.
If you want to know more about the tribe and other tribes in South Louisiana, you can find Sitting Bear at Vermilionville Tuesdays-Fridays.