November is Native American Heritage Month
After 100 years of efforts, American Indian and Alaska Native people finally have a special place on the national calendar to honor their contributions, achievements, sacrifices and cultural legacy.
November is the perfect time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, tribes, traditions and histories of Native Americans. Many of our public lands hold stories of important Native American contributions, the unique trials they’ve faced in the past (and today) and the ways in which tribal citizens conquer these challenges.
What is Native American Heritage Month?
What started at the turn of the century as an effort to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S., has resulted in a whole month being designated for that purpose.
One of the very proponents of an American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, who was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” and for three years they adopted such a day. In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kans., formally approved a plan concerning American Indian Day. It directed its president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, to call upon the country to observe such a day. 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.
The year before this proclamation was issued, 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. There is no record, however, of such a national day being proclaimed.
The first American Indian Day in a state was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York. Several states celebrate the fourth Friday in September. In Illinois, for example, legislators enacted such a day in 1919. Presently, several states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but it continues to be a day we observe without any recognition as a national legal holiday…
It wasn’t until 1986 that Congress passed—and President Ronald Reagan signed—a proclamation authorizing American Indian Week. Then, recognizing that—for Native Americans—November was generally a time of thanks and celebration after a successful harvest season, President George H. W. Bush designated November as National American Indian Heritage Month. Since then, Presidents regularly issue similar proclamations.
Several states, like California, South Dakota and Tennessee celebrate a specific American Indian Day on different dates of the year (South Dakota has actually changed Columbus Day to Native American 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 Month is commemorated through celebrations and special lessons in schools. It is probably no coincidence that Native American Month falls in the same month as Thanksgiving. Traditionally, schoolchildren spent the month discussing the history of the pilgrims who came to America to escape religious persecution. However, now that Native American month has been established, students explore the effect of the settlers on the Native Americans and how significant the contributions were. If it had not been for the Native Americans, the pilgrims would not have survived, and indeed many of them died because they were unfamiliar with the terrain of the New World. Native American month honors Native American wisdom and culture and gives students a chance to explore the Thanksgiving story from the point of view of the American Indians.
Native American Month is also commemorated with special exhibits in museums designed to celebrate and display American Indian art and history. Many Native Americans have public celebrations and meetings to raise awareness of Native American rights. Schools celebrate Native American month by concentrating on the history of various tribes in America. Young children may dress up in Indian costumes and eat traditional Native American food. Many children write and act out plays in honor of Native American month and read books about Native American history
In South Dakota people celebrate Native Americans’ Day through learning from educational resources that focus on the traditions, culture and background of Native Americans. It is a day to celebrate the heritage of Native Americans and for both native and non-native cultures to unite so the many aspects of native culture can be shared.
In Berkeley, California, some organizations, community groups and churches support the day through awareness-raising activities about the history, culture and traditions of indigenous peoples of the United States. Cultural activities such as markets and pow wows, which are gatherings of North America’s indigenous people, are held. In modern times, pow wows involve dancing, singing, socializing and celebrating Native American culture.
Why do so many parents, families and teachers continue to dedicate the month of November with a focus on perpetuating this myth year after year after year?
Native people are connected to history, to family, to land, culture and community. We are still alive. We are still here; we have not disappeared into the past, like the pilgrims did. All of the Elders have said that Native People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. After the corn was dried, pumpkins sliced and the wild plums brought in it was a time for “giving thanks.” When the food was together for the hard winter months and when the work was all done, they gathered.
Yet after the “Thanksgiving” holiday was coined and continues to be celebrated based on a story that does not include factual Native American history, “Thanksgiving” has become a time of mourning for many Native People. It serves as a period of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many Native people from disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation. As celebrated in America “Thanksgiving” is a reminder of 500 years of betrayal.