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The history of the United States of America is full of stories and facts from a wide diversity of cultures and peoples, but its foundations were built far before anyone attempted to make this part of North America a cohesive country. The Native American people lived across the land for thousands of years before others appeared on the shores, though their history and importance are sometimes brushed over in standard education.
Too many stereotypes and misconceptions exist about the American Indians who live across the land. Today, many people still do not understand who these people are, how they contributed to the history and their role in today’s world.
Native American Heritage Month invites all of us to learn, explore, and experience the amazing history, culture, and diversity of the tribes and individuals who were here from the beginning and still live here today. Also, Native American Heritage Month gives the tribal people from all nations the opportunity to celebrate their cultures and share them with others.
Why Do We Celebrate Native American Heritage Month?
For non-native people who now live in the United States of America, it is always important to understand cultures and civilizations outside our own. Too many people get their ideas of Native Americans from Hollywood movies, old TV shows, cartoons, and their own prejudices. Some people are not even aware that American Indians still exist, that they come from hundreds of different nations with their own cultures, histories, languages, and more, or that they were persecuted far beyond the earliest days of national “discovery” and Western expansion.
Native American Heritage Month is set aside every year to help both children and adults move beyond the stereotypes and the glamorized depictions in movies and other media. It is an opportunity not only to learn about how tribal people exist today but also all of the amazing accomplishments and contributions they made to the early days and current times in our country.
Early Education is Not Enough
From a young age, children in the USA are now taught that Native American people lived on the land for thousands of years before any explorers showed up from across the Atlantic Ocean. They may learn about prominent figures like Sitting Bull, Pocahontas, and Sacajawea. Their teachers or parents will read some of the classic tales or folklore of a few of the tribes. They may learn how to make a tipi out of popsicle sticks or color in images of a chief’s feathered headdress or to learn about the meaning of a dream catcher.
While activities like this provide a glimpse into the personalities and icons of a very generalized idea of what Native Americans are, they certainly do not tell the whole story. Of course, it is impossible to do that in a month, but the designation does allow for more exploration and sharing of ideas and facts that pertain to the amazing diversity in the native population.
More than 6 million Native American people still live in the United States today according to the latest census reports. They are a part of more than 570 recognized tribes or nations. Although like with all nearby cultures, some things are shared, this presents an absolute wealth of unique attributes that should be understood, appreciated, and preserved for future generations.
The History of Native American Heritage Month
Like many things in this great nation of ours, the idea of celebrating Native American culture, accomplishments, and contributions began with an idea from a Native American person themselves. A man by the name of Dr. Arthur C. Parker first put the idea of this tradition into the minds of the Boy Scouts of America. Parker is a Seneca Indian and worked at the Museum of Arts and Science as the director. This all began around 1912 in Rochester, New York.
It was not until 1915 that the idea that began as a single day First Americans celebration and educational opportunity turned into something much larger than a regional effort. When the Congress of the American Indian Association met in Kansas in that year, they finalized the concept of approaching the federal government with the idea of an American Indian Day. The president of that group, and Arapahoe named Reverend Sherman Coolidge, was not only about creating a celebratory day or national holiday. In those early years, it was also about getting recognition for the native people who lived on the land as full and equal citizens of the country.
State Governments Begin to Take Action
The earliest government-supported celebration occurred in New York State on the second Saturday in May 1916. Prior to the declaration by Coolidge, various people attempted to drum up interest across multiple states in declaring these special days set aside for celebration and cultural understanding. One prominent person who rode from state to state on his horse was a Blackfoot Indian named Red Fox James. His final journey was straight to the White House to share the news officially the 24 different states endorsed the idea of a Native American day.
Unfortunately, his and other efforts were not enough to create a national holiday at that time. In fact, even in 2019, there is no federally recognized specific holiday set aside to signify the accomplishments and contributions of the Native American people. It all started out with separate states declaring their interest.
As mentioned above, the first American Indian Day occurred in New York in 1916. A few other states joined in that year but chose the fourth Friday in September as the designated holiday. Illinois joined in three years later in 1919. Today, a century down the road, some states have replaced the concept of Columbus Day with Native American Day instead.
In the bicentennial year of 1976, authorization was first given to the US president to designate an official American Indians Day every year. In fact, they chose an entire week between October 10 and 16 to promote interest and education in the various native tribes and historical occurrences that affected our early nation and the days before it even existed.
The reticence to declare a national holiday specifically for the celebration of the American Indian tribes people may be due to an amazing collection of reasons. Whatever they are, it is commonly recognized today that the importance of the people that lived on this land before Europeans came over is a vital part of the history and heritage of all of us. In recognition of this truth, Native American Heritage Month has become an official declaration every year since 1990. Although it is still not recognized as a set holiday, the expectation is that every president will continue to mark November as this special time.
When Is Native American Heritage Month?
November was named as Native American Heritage Month in 1990 by then President George H. W. Bush. In the beginning, this was only done for that particular year and not established as a continuous month of learning and celebration that would continue for all time.
Never-the-less, November has continued to get the same designation on a yearly basis by various leaders and the nation at large since then. Sometimes, it is called Native American Heritage Month, National American Indian and Alaskan Native Month, and a few other titles. The proclamation did not particularly set aside this month in an ongoing manner. Instead, it authorized the president to designate the month every year. Since 1990, the presidents have all done that.
Why Choose November?
The choice of November seems to coincide with both the observances of Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. First, Christopher Columbus was originally lauded for “discovering” America and was celebrated for claiming it for the Europeans. Many people now feel that is unwise due to the tragedy this early contact wrought on the Native American populations.
The traditional concept of Thanksgiving, in which the pilgrims and American Indians feasted together to share the bounty of the new world, is also fraught with suspicion and doubt due to historical events. In some ways, perhaps, the scheduling of Native American Heritage Month surrounding these two questionable holidays allows for improved education and awareness of what really happened all those years ago.
How to Celebrate Native American Heritage Month?
After usually discussing Christopher Columbus in October and his contribution to the beginnings of European exploration and expansion into the New World, many teachers in elementary and secondary schools turn to Native Americans as their next topic of interest. In truth, things like Native American Heritage Month may only be heard about within the confines of school. Although there is no way of knowing, it seems that most adults who are not already involved with the cultures would not spend an inordinate amount of time studying the history and current lives of other people.
This is the type of intentional ignorance that people of the world and this country should fight against. When you become aware of specially designated months like this, it gives you the opportunity to expand your range of knowledge and experience things that can contribute to your understanding of the world and the people around you. With all of the connectivity that exists today, immersing yourself in some American Indian education and cultural experience is easier than ever before.
Before you consider celebrating Native American Heritage Month, you must understand why it exists and the truth about what you will celebrate. This is not the time to perpetuate old stereotypes or focus on only negative truths that unfortunately exist throughout the history of the United States.
Sink Into Native American Media
While watching Disney’s Pocahontas or similar light fare with your children may help to get them interested in the idea of learning about Native Americans, you must understand that they are not altogether accurate. Plenty of excellent movies and books exist that provide both entertainment and higher degrees of education for both children and adults. Research and choose wisely. Some excellent choices include Reel Injun, which shines a spotlight on the stereotypes of American Indians in the film industry’s history, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, and Smoke Signals.
Check out our favorite films!
Get Active in the Online Discussion
Learning with others is sometimes more fun than doing it alone, and the Internet can put you in contact with authentic Native Americans eager to share their stories and cultural information with you. The hashtag #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth can get you started on your search for interesting posts and information about events you may want to attend.
If you are a Native American, this is the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with your nation’s official organizations or social groups. If you are a non-native, remember to approach any groups with a sense of respect and humility. Most are quite eager to share, but this month is not an opportunity for the native people of our country to all become spokespeople or educators.
Respectfully Explore Different Cultures
As “cultural appropriation” gets more attention these days, it makes sense for everyone to understand how to respectfully explore Native American cultures and history. This is not a time to buy a cheap feathered headdress and dance around whooping and hollering. This type of activity displays a horrific misunderstanding about the richness of tribal culture and a gross disrespect to the histories and cultures that you should want to learn about during Native American Heritage Month.
Try out and the American Indian craft or project with your family, for example, learn how to make a traditional dream catcher. The Internet holds a wealth of different options on both craft sites and educational portals. This makes it simple for you to find something age-appropriate to do with your children. Some options may include stitching leather, stringing or sowing with beads, weaving, basketry, or making very simple drums.
Research a unique recipe from a tribe in your home state to cook up and eat for dinner or a snack. While some of the more traditional meals may be beyond your ability to create, you can still pick and choose from ingredients used and try out new options that everyone can enjoy.
Play some lacrosse in the backyard or even attend a professional game. The earliest games of lacrosse were played centuries ago, lasted a lot longer than a few hours, and may have had dozens or even 100 different male players rotating in and out of a single-game.
Read Native American folklore to your kids at night. Forget westernized versions of stories like Pocahontas that have been changed extensively from the historical truth. So many of the tribes all across the country have a wealth of unique legends that you can explore and enjoy with your family. Folklore remains one of the most entertaining and important ways to preserve the culture and learn about the people and events that helped shape our world.
Attend a Native American event in your community. There is no part of the United States that was not home to one or more groups of tribal nation people in the past. There is not one state without Native Americans living there today. Explore your regional or state calendar or search online for any type of public events that you can attend alone or with your family or friends.
Correct Your Own (and Others) Misconceptions
One of the more important aspects of celebrating Native American Heritage Month comes from its original purpose and intentions. Far too many people are ignorant about what it means to be an American Indian, how important they were to the formation of the country, all the horrible things that have occurred in the past and continue to do so today, and how we can all work together to improve relationships and understanding.
The vast majority of people in this country have some misconceptions about Native American history or life. These types of beliefs or understandings make it more difficult for us to come together to work for the betterment of all communities in the ways that serve them the best. Beyond folktales, Hollywood movies, fun kids crafts, and watching some educational YouTube videos or reading an article like this, take it upon yourself to look further and dig deeper and challenge the misconceptions that you undoubtedly have.
Many years ago, the Native American nations lived all across North America. Most people learn about them from movies, books, and school projects, but fail to truly understand their importance in history and the current world. The establishment of Native American Heritage Month attempted to correct these issues by creating a time specifically set aside to further education about the diversity of native people. Take some time this year to get involved with the learning and cultural experiences in your community or explore online to learn more about Native American people and how they contribute to the world.
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