June 21-Canada’s National Aboriginal Day

June 21 National Aboriginal Day in Canada

June 21, 2012-National Aboriginal Day is a day recognizing and celebrating the cultures and contributions of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.  The day was first celebrated in 1996, after it was proclaimed that year by then Governor General of Canada Roméo LeBlanc, to be celebrated on June 21 annually.  The day of recognition came about after a series of calls for such a celebration. In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) called for the creation of a National Aboriginal Solidarity Day to be celebrated on June 21. Slightly more than a decade later in 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that a National First Peoples Day be designated. Also in that same year, a national conference of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people chaired by Elijah Harper, titled The Sacred Assembly, called for a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canada. June 21 often coincides with the summer solstice.

The day was first celebrated in Canada in 1996

In reality, many of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples celebrated their culture and heritage on or near this day for many generations.  National Aboriginal Day provides an opportunity to acknowledge the unique achievements of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in fields as diverse as agriculture, the environment, business and the arts.  Canadians get the chance to learn more about Aboriginal people and their contributions towards the country’s development and progress.  At the same time First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have the opportunity to showcase their cultures and achievements throughout Canada on this day.

Although today in Canada marks National Aboriginal Day and celebrate the cultures of our indigenous people, celebrations will be tainted by the bitter reality facing Canada’s founding peoples and the ongoing frustrations that some Aboriginal leaders predict will lead to confrontations down the road.  While high school graduation and employment figures have improved, Canadian Aboriginals continue to be Canada’s most impoverished people, often living in conditions more comparable to developing countries than to the rest of Canada.

Overcrowding, obesity, malnutrition, and a lack of clean water continue to plague Canada’s more remote Aboriginal communities.  That situation was highlighted last week when the World Health Organization raised concerns about the high number of serious cases of H1N1 infection in those communities.  And with a young and increasingly urban population, the health and well-being of Canada’s Aboriginals is of growing significance to the rest of Canada.  In Manitoba and Saskatchewan some projections suggest Aboriginals could make up to a third of the population by 2050.

National Aboriginal Day Celebrations

While that projection may be high, Canada’s Aboriginal population has grown six times faster than the non-Aboriginal population in recent years.  Aboriginals are 10 to almost 20 years younger than Canada’s overall median age of 40 years.  Although they only represent 3.4 percent of Canada’s population now, that figure is expected to jump to 4.1 by 2017 and is growing at twice the rate of the national average.  They are potentially positioned to be Canada’s fasting growing workforce of the future replacing “Baby Boomers” who are now retiring on mass, and reducing our need to rely on foreign workers.

Unfortunately the story of the indigenous peoples of the Baja Peninsula is a sad one.  At the time of Spanish contact in 1532, Baja California Norte was primarily inhabited by several indigenous groups belonging to the Yuman language branch of the Hokan linguistic family.  Most of these early inhabitants lived by hunting and fishing, but some of them also gathered acorns, seeds, prickly pears, apples, pine nuts and other small edible plants found in the harsh desert environment.

Photo: Francis Parker, 1873 (San Diego Historical Society)

The northernmost aboriginal Baja Californians spoke several closely-related Yuman languages, most notably the Kiliwa, Paipai, Kumeyaay (Kumiai), and Cocopá (Cucapá) tongues.  Using the controversial technique of glottochronology, it has been estimated that the initial separation of the Yuman family into different languages occurred perhaps 2,500 years ago.  The Cocopá and Kumiai languages are believed to be very closely related to each other, separated by perhaps about one thousand years of independent development.

Living in an arid environment, their susceptibility to the ravages of war and disease was accentuated by their already marginal existence.  By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the aboriginal population of the entire Baja Peninsula had been severely depleted.  Up until the 1910 census, the population statistics for Baja California Sur and Baja California Norte were tallied together as one jurisdiction.  According to the 1895 Mexican census, some 2,150 individuals spoke indigenous languages in Baja California.  However, this tally dropped to 1,111 at the time of the 1900 census.

Unfortunately, the Indian groups indigenous specifically to Baja California never recovered from their initial declines of the Seventeenth Century and are few in number.  The primary native speakers of indigenous languages in Baja California Norte in the 2000 census were the Pai-Pai (193 speakers); Kumiai (159); Cucapá (82); Cochimí (80), and Kiliwa (46 people).  All of these tribes were of the Yuman Linguistic family whose ancestors had probably migrated to the Baja Peninsula thousands of years earlier.  Estimates of the Kumiai population in Mexico at the end of the Twentieth Century put their numbers at 600.

Kumeyaay (Kumiai) culture has survived and is flourishing

Although ancestors can be identified genetically from many of Baja indigenous groups, the Kumeyaay (Kumiai) nation, who territory includes both Alta and Baja California, is the only group to survive culturally.

Ironically, most of the Mexican indigenous languages spoken in the two Bajas are actually tongues brought to the Peninsula by migrant workers from other states, in particular Oaxaca.  The use of Oaxacan migrant labour in Baja California Sur has been a well-established practice since the 1970s.  For more than thirty years, many Baja California growers have recruited Oaxacans almost exclusively, with La Paz as a major destination for most Mixteco laborers.  Today, the Mixteco and Zapoteco Indians are the only significant indigenous languages spoken in Baja California Sur.  It is likely that most of the 1,955 Mixtecos and 606 Zapotecos living in Baja were probably born in Oaxaca.  In the 2000 census, 8,083 persons in Baja Sur claimed Oaxaca as their birthplace, while another 8,564 listed Michoacán as their birthplace, the original home of the Purépecha language.

Baja Indigenous Groups

The Pai Pai Indians – also known as Akwa’ala – occupied the northern Sierras in the interior of the northern Baja California Peninsula.  Their original territory included the lower Colorado River Valley in the present day municipalities of Ensenada and Mexicali, as well as adjacent areas in western Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Sonora.

The Kumeyaay (Kumiai) Indians were hunters, gatherers and fishers who inhabited coastal, inland valley, and mountain regions along the present-day Baja California border region with the United States. The traditional Kumeyaay territory originally extended from around Escondido in California to the northern part of the present day municipio of Ensenada. Occupying the southern section of present-day San Diego County in California, the Kumeyaay inhabited the region near the San Diego Presidio when it was founded in 1769. The Kumeyaay in the vicinity of San Diego were also referred to as the Diegueño by the Spaniards.

The Cochimí Indians inhabited a considerable part of the central Baja Peninsula, from north of Rosario to the vicinity of Loreto in east central Baja California. Like many of the other Baja tribes, the Cochimí Indians survived by fishing in the coastal areas and gathering fruits and seeds for sustenance in other areas.

The Cucapás (Cocopá) living in the desert region along the Colorado River in the frontier zone of Baja California Norte and Sonora, fished and hunted deer, rabbit, moles, mountain lion and coyote.  They also collected a wide variety of desert products, including cactus flowers, potatoes, and wild wheat.

The Kiliwa Indians were hunters who inhabited northeastern Baja California. The Kiliwa lived along the eastern slope of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir and ranged down the Gulf Coast.  Their habitat also extended into the Colorado Desert.

The Guaycura (Guaicura or Waicuri) lived in the middle part of the lower Baja peninsula, inhabiting the Magdalena Plains from Loreto down to and including the La Paz area.

The Pericú occupied the southern tip of the peninsula around San José del Cabo and several large Gulf islands, including Cerralvo, Espíritu Santo, San José, and Santa Catalina.

Pericúes Territory on Baja California


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