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.
“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.”
“That’s my grandma’s everyday life in Guatemala,” said Pablo-Perez, a few minutes after she swore the oath that officially made her a U.S. citizen. Of course, she was sure to add, her grandmother lives alone, and does all of those jobs.
“The men and the women, they have to ask the nature permission before planting and growing stuff,” Pablo-Perez said of Mam culture. “It’s similar right now — we went through a process and we’re asking permission.”
Like many of the thousands of Mam who have made Oakland their home, Pablo-Perez was born in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a municipality in western Guatemala. When she was 9, Pablo-Perez followed her mother, who wanted her to get an American education and learn English, to the United States.
Today, Pablo-Perez is a senior studying criminal justice and political science at San Francisco State. After she graduates this spring, she plans to go to law school, with the goal of becoming an immigration attorney — helping Mam and others navigate the legal system she worked her way through to earn her citizenship.
“That’s needed right now in the Mam community and every community,” she said. “There are not so many lawyers who represent the people and understand the culture.”
Whether they come from present-day Guatemala or present-day Oklahoma, like him, Hook said the issues indigenous people face are often the same.
“How do we hold onto our language? How do we hold onto our culture?” Hook said. “How do we fit into a dominant society — that may be antagonistic — successfully.”
As part of that effort, federal officials who attended the ceremony stressed the importance of communities being counted in the once-a-decade Census that began earlier this month. Census outreach specialist Lydia Beltran, who noted her Mexican Apache heritage, made sure to note that the process will not include the hotly contested question about whether residents are citizens.
“Let’s be counted, and be a part of history,” Beltran said, “for our ancestors and for our continued representation in this country.”