Chali’Naru Dones, who is about to co-chair the Commonwealth’s largest Indigenous-led ceremonial celebration for Newton’s first Indigenous Peoples’ Day, has walked from her home to the same wooded spot along the Charles River almost every day since she moved to Newton a year ago.
A Borikén Taíno woman and member of the Guainía Taíno Tribe, Dones said her visits are a ceremony, and her experiences at the riverside — feeding fish, watching birds, listening to frogs — encourage her “REALationship” with “mother earth.”
Dones is known for bringing her pet parrot, Sally Bean, a blue and gold macaw sacred to the Taíno people, on her walks.
“I’m here all the time,” she said. “It’s how I view my reality to the life I live.”
Dones said she hasn’t always been so open about her identity. Growing up, Dones said, she “didn’t live the Indigenous ways” as she moved between Puerto Rico and Boston. She said her Puerto Rican grandmother, who raised her, would tell her “not to disclose that information because it’s frowned upon.”
For years, Dones said, she didn’t tell anyone about her Indigenous background. But her breakthrough moment came around the turn of the century, Dones said, on a hot July day when, in need of a rest, she and a friend took an impromptu beach trip to Cape Cod. On the way back, they saw an advertisement for a powwow. Remembering how her boyfriend at the time — a member of the Chippewa nation — had encouraged her to embrace the Indigenous community, Dones decided to go.
“From the moment we stopped, I just knew I was blown away. I felt whole — felt complete — like, this is who I am!” she said.
Dones continued to embrace her Indigenous identity, attending events — from “Sinking Columbus Day” to a march honoring Indigenous children who suffered abuse in residential schools — and speaking out against the erasure of Indigenous people around Massachusetts. It was also around this time that Dones expanded her small, creative business, Createdfx, to include Indigenous arts.
“Chali is such a great example of what it means to be a powerful Indigenous woman today,” said Jacklyn Janeksela, public relations and marketing director for Indigenous Peoples’ Day Newton. “She’s always shown up — all the marches, all the events — I don’t know how she does it.”
Yet, Dones said, there was still something missing. As a Puerto Rican Indigenous woman, she said, she had yet to connect with her own tribe, the Taíno People, or Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean.
It took several years for Dones to complete her initiation into the Taíno community. Now, she serves as the Massachusetts Liaison Officer of the United Confederation of Taíno People and is a member of the Guainía tribe.
“Feeling like you’re part of a community is huge, especially after you’ve been feeling lost,” she said. “I didn’t really know who I was, but now I do — I found my people.”
Dones said she is committed to protecting the Indigenous community’s legacy. For the past year, she has worked alongside a committee of Indigenous volunteers to plan Newton’s first ceremonial celebration for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“Chali’s leadership has been invaluable,” said Kerry Prasad, a celebration committee member. “She starts every conversation and meeting with a smile, reminding us that we can only control so much — that the Creator will take care of what we cannot.”
Next week’s celebration is expected to attract about 400 Massachusetts residents and will feature art, entertainment, and food from Indigenous vendors. One of Dones’ tribal sisters, Tai Pelli, will be flying in from Arizona to give a speech.
Dones said she is optimistic attendees will walk away knowing Indigenous people are here to stay. She said, “We exist. Indigenous people are real. We exist and matter and are not going anywhere.”
Jazmyn Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.