Nothing can be more daunting to an artist than staring at a blank canvas, especially when that canvas is on the side of a 20-foot building in the middle of the fifth largest city in the U.S.

With her paintbrush in hand on an October morning in Arizona, when the sun still burns and it’s hot enough in the desert for mini-skirts and shorts, Cahokia co-founder and Diné artist Eunique Yazzie is working with a group of muralists to complete a vision that represents a community full of culture and history.

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Once the muralists knew what they wanted to paint, each of the five artists — Eunique Yazzie, “J Valley” Lopez, Carrie “CC” Curley, Anitra “Yukue” Molina, Lucinda “La Morena” Hinojos — prepared their workspace with a blessing, synchronizing in their own way.

They are painting for their people and to create a space and tradition that is recognized across Arizona, from urban centers to sovereign tribal nations.

Cahokia is an arts and social tech space powered by a cultural, entrepreneurial, equity collective co-founded by Eunique and Melody Lewis. They are building a foundation for an “Indigenous-led platform for creative place-keeping.” That’s something the founders describe as holding space for their own culture and sharing space for collaboration in a city center where gentrification has driven out too many.

This year, Cahokia is hosting downtown Phoenix’s first major Indigenous Peoples Day Festival on Monday, Oct. 10. The celebration will span an entire block of Roosevelt Row.

In less than a week’s work, the muralists had conceived the idea for the mural and finished it in time for the festival to transform Roosevelt Row’s arts district, turning it into an Indigenous celebration of all Native cultures with family-friendly activities, live music, and traditional foods.

“They’ve had non-Indigenous events that take over the spaces,” Eunique said. “And for the first time, this space is going to be taken over by all Indigenous businesses, entrepreneurs, creatives, artists.”

The Indigenous-led, Indigenous-centered celebration is a model for what Eunique and other Native people want to see expand and embraced across Arizona, from Phoenix to Flagstaff and from Tucson to Yuma, and to every town, city and sovereign nation in the U.S.

Representation is growing because of Indigenous people, like Eunique and others, who are working for long-overdue equitable change in arts, entertainment, politics, media and other arenas.

Outside of the historic downtown Phoenix celebration, in Tucson, people celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day can now take part in a sunrise run and a free community gathering, “Centering the Sacred, Centering Healing,” hosted by the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders. They can join Cara Romero, a fine art photographer sharing her journey as a young Chemehuevi woman in the ’90s, studying film and battling stereotypes about Native people and art.

In Flagstaff, they can join a community forum, “Honoring The Voices Of Our Youth.” They can celebrate with a day of free sessions on self-care, sovereignty, land preservation that culminates in dancing, poetry and live music at the Indigenous Peoples Day Arizona gathering. Or they can join a virtual class with Mariah Gladstone of IndigiKitchen on Indigenous food pathways and how to decolonize diets.

There are choices.

Eunique has worked, lived, and operated her businesses in downtown Phoenix for about 15 years and has consulted for other companies in the area. After being on Roosevelt Row and developing artists’ brands, she saw the lack of people who looked like her and wanted to bring Indigenous cultures to the downtown Phoenix scene.

Eunique Yazzie is a designer and co-founding Cahokia member whose roots are from the Navajo Nation. Credit: Grace Benally

When asked to join the board of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation in 2020, people started to see that she had so much to contribute.

“It opened up a whole other door of me speaking and giving representation to an entire community,” she said. “I realized that we just needed a space, we just needed somebody to hear our stories and put us here and help us work with the community.”

Arizona is home to 22 federally-recognized tribal nations and more than 385,000 Indigenous people, among the highest in the U.S. The Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler metro area saw the largest increase nationally, with the Indigenous population rising by 4,832 to 208,094, according to a 2022 Census report.

Given how large the Indigenous population is, many Native Americans in Arizona are tired of seeing little representation that reflects their communities.

J Valley, one of the muralists, painted the Indigenous warrior rising to represent all tribal nations on the land.

He hopes people who see the mural feel a sense of “gathering, something you can connect to.”

“We’re all connected to the earth, the stars, the land, the cactuses, and the wood,” he said. “Just all of us coming together, a day to be proud. For us to get together and show that we’re still here.”

“J Valley” Lopez stands in front of the section of the mural he worked on Credit: Grace Benally

An alternative holiday to Columbus Day

J Valley has painted his whole life and started creating murals in 2018. He says his art expresses his Indigenous Native Nahua, Yoeme Yaqui, and Apache heritage.

Every piece of artwork he has done has bold, bright, vibrating colors that bring out the soulful horizons that Arizona has to offer — which made painting the monochromatic mural in black and white markedly different from his own art style. 

The painters wanted to add elements with symbolism, as well as represent their communities within the mural, hoping viewers can see it and feel something when looking at it.

“With this event, we want to solidify that we’re here, we’re taking out this space, we want to have fun, we want to commemorate and honor, and then use that momentum for our community to push forward with a lot of the tough things that are going on,” said Mike Webb, a Chicano/Chickasaw man who serves as Cahokia’s Community Cultivator.

Mike Webb identifies as Chicano and Chickasaw and works as Community Cultivator for Cahokia Credit: Grace Benally

Indigenous Peoples Day emerged as an alternative holiday to Columbus Day, which Indigenous people have protested for years, disagreeing with the idea of honoring a man who authorized their colonization and forced assimilation. South Dakota was the first state to officially recognize the holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day in 1990, and nine more states would soon follow.

As of 2022, the federal government officially recognizes 574 tribal nations across the U.S., making up about 7.2 million of the total population. 

In 2021, the U.S. celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples Day after Joe Biden became the first president to officially recognize the history, proclaiming it a time to honor “America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today.” In Arizona, the day was officially recognized in 2020, when Gov. Doug Ducey issued a proclamation. However, he was criticized in 2021 for not issuing a subsequent proclamation despite calls from Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, and other lawmakers of Indigenous descent.

The holiday is planned to be a reflection of the legacy and impact of colonization on Indigenous communities, while also celebrating those cultures. Since the presidential proclamation, states across the nation have been steadily increasing the number of Indigenous-led celebrations as official holidays.

More Indigenous Peoples Day activities in Tucson and online

“The main thing we want is to have an event that honors and provides space,” Mike, Cahokia’s Community Cultivator, said. “Cahokia is all about providing space for Indigenous voices to be amplified and to have a space here in downtown Phoenix. Phoenix is one of the largest cities in the U.S. and a lot of the influences and voices that are here already are not necessarily very reflective of the Indigenous communities that have been here for a very, very long time.”

Indigenous leadership: ‘A complete circle of communities’

As a board member of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, Eunique realized that to bring Indigenous representation within the downtown Phoenix area, she would have to break barriers in a system that wasn’t fit for marginalized communities.

“All I had to do was create the space and just bring people in and those people were amazing leaders within themselves,” she said. “We’re not a hierarchy, we’re a complete circle of communities that are coming together. And we’re all leaders within our right, so we need to create space for each other.”

To integrate Indigenous people and culture into any large city scene, there needs to be equitable representation within those who have power, she said.

“It’s a big undertaking and I think we need more Native people in leadership positions or in representation positions, and then we need more boards to just not create a seat for Brown people, they need to actually implement their ideas. When that happens, things like this happen,” she said, referring to the festival. 

Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly with the “I Voted” sticker she commissioned. Credit: @gabriellackelly on Instagram

Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly finds pride in representing her Tohono O’odham community in political leadership — managing elections and serving voters in the second largest county in the state. She is making history as the first Native American to hold an elected Pima County office and the third to hold a county-level office in Arizona.

She’s excited to see more Indigenous people in positions of power, including U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who made history in 2021 when she became the first Native American to serve as a presidential cabinet secretary.

“Being involved in voter registration, then the political realm, it was becoming really clear to me that there was not enough Indigenous representation, and not only do people not know anything about us, they think that we’re extinct,” she said. “They think we’re gone, that we’re people of the past.”

The Pima County recorder saw an opportunity when she looked at the different “I Voted” stickers that were available to people who vote early in Tucson. There were separate voting stickers in English, Spanish, and O’odham. But to get a sticker in Spanish or O’odham, a voter would have to go to her office.

She decided to revamp the keepsake for early voting, which is available by mail and starts at sites on Oct. 12, sharing all three translations of the words in one decal to reflect the major languages of the Tucson area.

The new tri-lingual sticker reads: “A:ñi ‘ant wodalt” in Tohono O’odham. “Yo Voté” in Spanish. “I voted” in English.

The stickers have been so successful that voters are asking for them, and asking questions about the O’odham language. Many want to know how to correctly pronounce “A:ñi ‘ant wodalt,” and in learning, they are understanding the representation of people who were here first, long before Arizona became a state.

With events like Cahokia’s Indigenous Peoples Day Phoenix Fest, Indigenous communities are holding space in urban areas like the capital of Arizona.

For Eunique and Gabriella, projects like stickers and murals are just the beginning.

From out of darkness

Eunique attended the Santa Fe Indian Market in August and couldn’t believe how many Indigenous artists were on the streets.

She saw even more potential to bring a bigger Native cultural aspect to downtown Phoenix in the coming years. She’s already planning for Indigenous Peoples Day Festival 2023.

Cahokia does not want to limit the festival to only Indigenous people, welcoming anyone who wants to learn and immerse themselves in heritage activities, native cuisine and honor those who were here before them. 

“We want all of the community’s support,” Mike said. “We want everyone to come out who feels inclined to, and who wants to have fun and who wants to learn about more aspects of our culture, but also see that it’s just a group of people who do cool things.”

Cahokia members believe that all communities should come together and support one another in a way that brings many identities, cultures and values to the table. In the same way the five muralists from different backgrounds came together to create a symbol of their alliances. 

They painted thick logs with long dark lines and shaped each one into a circle to form a hearth that “centered everything and grounded it,” Eunique said.

“Everything in the swirl is like our fireplace in our story … this element of spiritualness and just ceremonial,” she said.

Standing in front of the finished mural, Eunique extends her hand out, motioning to the painted fire pit — at the base of the massive wall, above black asphalt — in a downtown Phoenix parking lot.

It’s now a canvas, she says, signifying “where our first light came from out of darkness,” from the Indigenous people who came before her.

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Grace Benally is a Diné journalism student in her senior year also attending ASU’s Cronkite School. Benally focuses her writing on Indigenous communities, as well as entertainment coverage.