Native American Heritage Month

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

November is National Native American Heritage Month. It is a time where we acknowledge, learn, and celebrate the cultures and customs celebrated and history and obstacles faced by Native Americans. The United States "first Americans."



How Native American Heritage Month came into existence


In 1914, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians. On December 14, 1915, he presented the endorsements of 24 state governments at the White House.


In 1915, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe called upon the country to observe American Indian Day after the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kans., formally approved a plan. President Coolidge issued a proclamation on Sept. 28, 1915, which declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day and contained the first formal appeal for recognition of Indians as citizens.


To this day not all states have adopted a Native American Day and the date varies state by state. In New York for instance it is celebrated in September, rather than May and some states celebrate it on Columbus Day.


In 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations, under variants on the name (including “Native American Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) have been issued each year since 1994.


Native American or Indigenous People


Many people express confusion over referring to things as Native American or Indigenous. The term Native American is defined as a member of any of the indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America, especially those indigenous to what is now the continental US. In other words, native people and indigenous people are the same thing, the addition of the term American clarifies where the indigenous people are from. Some people have felt the word native has a negative connotation, so they began using the term indigenous.


The problem with using indigenous people when it refers to Native American Heritage Month is it does not acknowledge that you are referring to indigenous people from America and takes away from the acknowledgment and history of a group that has struggled to be acknowledged. A people who were taken away from their land, put on land that was not wanted by settlers or the government (reservations), and basically made to be forgotten.


Federally acknowledged tribes in Washington State. Where we would like to acknowledge all the tribes in the United States, we could not find a readable map that did justice to all the tribes. (Photo Credit Washintgontribes.org)

Forgotten People


Forgotten? You say. Yes. Native Americans were not put on reservations to maintain their culture, rather to separate them from the general white population. In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the Indian reservation system. Native Americans were moved to what were referred to as “farming reservations,” though not all the land was good for farming, to help keep them under control. In fact, Native Americans were not allowed to leave the reservations without permission.


Native Americans at that time and even to this day found life and maintaining their culture difficult on the reservations. They were moved away from lands and animals they held sacred, sources of food their diet was based on, and more. Feuding tribes were thrown together and suddenly had to cooperate to survive. Missionaries were sent to convert them to Christianity, and they were encouraged to wear non-native clothing. The list is endless.


In the present day, Native Americans are often left out of research, and cultural studies. Some say their population is too small, but the reason the population is so small is because Native Americans were made to acclimate to American culture, shipped off to Jamaica and other countries as slaves, butchered, or put on reservations. The size of a population does not remove the need to study the culture and the hardships and racism they face.


When it comes to voting, time and again laws have been passed to make it so Native Americans cannot vote. In 2018 for instance, in South Dakota a law was passed making it so that a physical address must be listed on IDs to vote. Most reservations do not use a physical address system and use PO Boxes instead. Suddenly, reservations had to come up with a physical address system for the reservations and update all the IDs just so Native Americans on the affected reservations could vote.


I have heard some people say why do Native Americans not speak up and demand a voice? Native Americans make up many different tribes and cultures. How outspoken a tribe is, depends on their culture and their past experience in speaking up. For some speaking up is just not part of the culture. For others when they have spoken up they have been punished by the government or they have felt their voices have not been heard. Some, like those at Sioux at Standing Rock, which many people reference, continue to speak up though.



Chief Ousamequin shares a peace pipe with Plymouth Governor John Carver. (California State Library )

The true story of Thanksgiving


With Thanksgiving approaching, I felt it was important to speak up about its true foundation and history. While current tradition dictates sharing what you are grateful for, it is important to understand the history of where the tradition really came from and not erase that history. When we are children, we are told it celebrates the landing at Plymouth Rock and the coming together of pilgrims and Native Americans and a feast they had. That the Native Americans taught them how to survive on the land and then just disappeared. The real story is unfortunately much grimmer.


The arrival of the pilgrims on the Mayflower was not in fact the first contact Native Americans had with Europeans. The Wampanoag tribe that greeted the pilgrims at Plymouth, along with other tribes had been slaughtered, decimated by diseases Europeans brought with them, or made slaves by Europeans for hundreds of years. The Wampanoag tribal leader Ousamequin did reach out to the pilgrims to make peace but not just because he wanted to help the pilgrims survive, but rather to make an alliance so that his people would not be killed or enslaved and to hopefully partner with them to fight off their tribal enemies. The Wampanoag did teach the pilgrims how to plant corn and to survive, however the relationship with the Wampanoag and pilgrims did not last long. In fact, the deterioration of this relationship culminated in one of the most horrific colonial Native American wars on record, King Philip’s War.


So where did this story of a feast come from? In 1769, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth felt like their cultural authority was slipping away as New England became less relevant within the colonies and wanted to boost tourism. So, they started to plant the seeds of this idea that the pilgrims were the fathers of America. A publication mentioning the dinner between the Wampanoag and pilgrims published by the Rev. Alexander Young included a footnote that said, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.” People actually paid attention to the footnote and accepted it. And in 1863, Abraham Lincoln (no friend to Native Americans) made it an official holiday. No mention was made of the disease, slaughter, or war that followed the dinner.


In closing, I would like to acknowledge that in writing this article I found myself struggling to determine what was best to include. Why? Because so much of American History in regards to Native Americans has been downplayed or left out. I could have written an article a day on something related to Native American history and heritage and it still would not have been enough to shed a light on a race that that is misrepresented in history and often forgotten.


I, myself was fortunate to have had the education in school and at home (I am part Native American) that I did. I learned history from both sides, was taught myths, told stories, and encouraged to learn about the different cultures. It is my hope that one day learning about the cultures, hearing history from different points of view, and acknowledging the hardships Native Americans and other races face will become a regular part of the curriculum in schools and of everyday conversation. Because no race, no people, no history should be forgotten.

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