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Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day:

"We Were Denver Before Denver Was Denver"

Photo of pow wow 

Just three years ago, Denver’s City Council designated the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in the city. In honor of that recognition and celebration of the area’s original inhabitants, #IAMDENVER talked with several members of Denver’s Indian community about what it means to be Native in Denver.

“Many Native Americans have been here in Colorado for hundreds and hundreds of years before Colorado was even a state,” says Early Dawn Roy, who attended the 30th Annual Friendship Powwow at the Denver Art Museum last month.

The stories here represent a variety of individual experiences of Native Americans in Denver, from art and cultural pride to education and relocation and so much more. Enjoy!


Watch Our Mini Documentary About the Native American Experience

Many people often come and say, "Well, I'm kind of shy to ask you this, but I'm not sure what to call you, American Indian or Native American or whatever?" I welcome that question. You know, Native American, American Indian, are interchangeable.

Indian can be generic. And I don't like to generalize because we have over 570 federally recognized tribes. We have hundreds more of state, corporate and even unrecognized tribes, each being very unique, distinctive in their culture, their language, their politics. 

So how can you generalize an Indian or Native American when what it means to be an Indian is what it means to be, in my mind, a Kiowa, a Crow, a Lakota person or whatever, and whatever was passed down from your grandparents to you and whatever you hold true or whatever you've learned about your tribe? 

But this is a discussion, an argument. It’s generational. A lot of people will still revert to wanting to be called what they are by tribal affiliation. But a lot of the younger generation go more by Native American or Native. And I'm respectful of that.  

There's a reason [to opt for Indian], legally in the Constitution and in documents; the Native American Rights Fund is one of the few, but most tribes [and tribal organizations including the] Denver Indian Center, Denver Indian Health and Family Services, American Indian College Fund [use Indian]. When you go on to most reservations, that's what they'll identify as in common conversation.



Steve LaPointe serves as a cultural adviser for the American Indian Academy of Denver. For #IAMDENVER, he discusses how boarding schools removed Native children from their parents and their culture, and how AIAD is working to save and strengthen what culture remains for a new generation. 

  • Denver Indian Center
    Founded in 1983 as an urban cultural gathering center for the Native community in Denver.
  • Denver Indian Health and Family Services
    Denver's only health program providing culturally appropriate care to Native Americans. 
More Video Stories

Jennifer Wolf is a Culture and Equity Specialist for Denver Public Schools. She says charter schools like AIAD serve Native students by better representing them and their culture in classrooms and educational materials.


Dustin Baird is a proud representative of a number of Native American organizations in Denver. He also serves as a volunteer with AIAD. He talks about how Native American relocation affected the passing on of traditions and how the school strives to connect younger generations with their culture and with each other.


For #IAMDENVER, Kristina Maldonado Bad Hand, a Denver-based graphic designer and illustrator, discusses why art is so important for expressing culture.  


Donna Chrisjohn shares the story of her parents being sent to Native American boarding schools before relocating to San Francisco and eventually moving to Denver.


Terri Bissonette is the founder of the American Indian Academy of Denver, an indigenous-focused charter school with a curriculum that brings academics and culture together sixth- through eighth-grade students that is expected to open fall 2020. For #IAMDENVER, Terri explains why having such a gathering space is important for Native students in Denver Public Schools.


Rafael Maldonado Bad Hand, Kristina's husband, who is also an artist and comic book illustrator, recounts how past treatment of Native Americans affected his family and their cultural legacy.