OAKLAND — Jonathan Hook turned to each of the four directions as he finished an honor song Saturday afternoon, repeating a Cherokee phrase that roughly translates to, “You did it.” Behind Hook were dancers who represented their Dine’-Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oneida and Choctaw heritage, among other tribes.
In front of him were Maya Mam from Guatemala and Sitka from Canada — plus immigrants from Vietnam, Algeria, China and six other countries who were about to take an oath of allegiance to the United States at a unique ceremony in which the descendants of this nation’s original inhabitants welcomed its newest citizens.
By Nico Savidge
“It’s a symbolic statement of unity of native peoples,” said Hook, an immigration services officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It’s symbolic of people here welcoming people from the south, and other parts of the world.”
While the event inside Oakland’s city council chambers had many of the hallmarks of the larger citizenship ceremonies that are held at the Paramount Theatre nearby, with plenty of patriotism and mini American flags, it had a particular focus on indigenous people throughout North America.
The Native American dancers at Saturday’s ceremony were dressed in intricately decorated northern buckskin and southern cloth dress, with eagle feathers, embroidered bison or a beadwork Monarch butterfly.
And there was a group of Mam dancers, who acted out the typical agrarian scenes that defined life for generations of the indigenous Guatemalans, who have become one of the Bay Area fastest-growing immigrant groups. Men danced as they hauled firewood and mimicked harvesting corn; women pressed tortillas and wove clothing.
Watching from the front row, Shirley Pablo-Perez got chills throughout the ceremony. As she watched her fellow Mam, she said, the movements “brought me back.”