Benefield: Indigenous Peoples’ Day uses cutting edge technology to celebrate deeply rooted traditions

The pandemic forced the SRJC event from under the oaks to a Zoom gathering. But the spirit of the event, and the connection fostered, was strikingly intimate.|

It was an unexpected mix of ancient customs and modern technology, but it worked.

Santa Rosa Junior College’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration, launched in 2015, was not held outside on the oak-studded campus, but relegated for the second year in a row to Zoom on Monday by the coronavirus pandemic.

Speakers appeared in tiny screens on desktop computers, applause was replaced by emojis, and dancing was seen via video and not felt in person.

It was not a shared space in a way that we have come to know, and yet it was surprisingly intimate. And moving.

Attendees topped more than 100 for most of the four-hour online gathering, with speakers addressing topics ranging from missing and murdered Indigenous women; Native Americans living in multiple cultural worlds; to achieving climate justice through Indigenous power.

“It was creating a cultural, respectful, loving space to where we could share about what is going on in the Indigenous community,” event moderator and SRJC psychology professor Brenda Flyswithhawks said after the gathering.

Whereas at an in-person event, approval might have been shown by modest applause and attendees might have drifted to and from the area as time permitted, the Zoom meeting Monday evoked what felt like deeper emotions.

Speakers wept. Audience members flooded the chat box with supportive messages. Tiny Zoom screens were regularly lit up with heart emojis or those with clapping hands.

When that wouldn’t cut it, audience members simply clapped or nodded into the screen.

“In Zoomland, we can still burn the smoke, we can still light the sage, we can still send the prayers up in a good way,” Flyswithhawks said. “We can still remember our cultural teachings.”

At a point in the day that normally would have been a stirring, emotional highlight — traditional Pomo dancing — Flyswithhawks had to marry, and balance, technology with sacred tradition.

“Today, the virus will not stop us,” she said as she fiddled with her moderators’ controls. “Let me just get into Western mode here and share my screen.”

Tiny screens gave way to a full view of traditional Pomo dance and song recorded on campus a couple of years ago. For the next approximately 15 minutes, attendees watched dancers from celebrations past.

Flyswithhawks was careful to say the videographer had asked permission before recording the dance. It was given, and on Monday, she said she was grateful it was.

And technology allowed panelists to Zoom-in from across Sonoma County and beyond. Artist and Institute of American Indian Arts instructor Leah Mata Fragua spoke from New Mexico about “using art and music and gaming and all these different types of mediums to take our old stories and values and move them into more contemporary ways of sharing.”

Fragua shined a spotlight on the tension that can emerge when honoring the old while embracing the new.

“I know that is scary because people will sometimes say, ‘Well, that’s not traditional,’” she said. “You can still follow traditional protocols in a modern world. You can have both. It doesn’t have to be binary.”

And so it was Monday.

Jennifer Perez, a faculty member at the college’s Child Development Center, spoke about cultural identity, resiliency and child development.

She was brought to tears by the sounds of a Native American lullaby she played via a YouTube video for attendees and the chat was immediately flooded with comments of support.

“That music is very dear,” she said.

She spoke of things as simple as rattles and drums and baskets being a way parents can connect children to their culture. She and colleague Maleese Warner are increasingly using outdoor education as a way to connect both child and parent to the earth. Shoes off, hearts turned on.

As great as the Zoom call was, Perez had a gentle reminder.

“Zoom is hard, so hard on the brain,” she said. “We are not designed that way. We have to remember that. Don’t get too good at Zoom, y’all. We are not designed that way.”

In her closing remarks, Flyswithhawks acknowledged the strange dance between traditional culture and modern technology used to bring people together Monday.

“We hope that this Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been a vessel, a vessel for your learning, to find each other and we hope that you have found yourself in our speakers who have shared their heart with you today,” she said.

“Here at this gathering, this virtual gathering, all of us in little boxes looking at each other,” she said. “Thank goodness for technology bringing us together.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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