Native American Heritage Month officially ends today, but that doesn’t mean you should pack away Native American Heritage until next November. Like other recognition months (Women’s History, Black History, Hispanic Heritage, etc.), the purpose of Native American Heritage Month is to encourage you to pay attention to other cultures, races, or genders. To understand and appreciate the many cultures that make up the United States. And to correct some misconceptions along the way. Perhaps that’s never been as important as it is now.
There are so many misconceptions about Native American people. Where to start?
- Native Americans are history. Native people live in contemporary society just like everyone else. They live in cities, rural areas, and yes, on reservations. Today’s Native Americans work in government, the arts, STEM fields, and more. If you don’t see many Native Americans, it could be due to hundreds of years of annihilation by Anglos. It could also mean you need to widen your circle of acquaintances.
- All Native Americans are alike. Seriously? There are 567 federally recognized Indian nations in the United States. That means hundreds of different cultures, histories, ethnicity, and languages. Lakota, Muscogee, Ute, Chumash, Diné. These nations and the people who belong to them should all be treated as distinct cultures and when possible, referred to by tribal affiliation. The only shared aspect is that they are all indigenous to this land.
- Native Americans get a free ride from the government. Not so. Native Americans pay federal taxes. They have bills to pay. Free health care? Indian Health Services (IHS) is woefully understaffed. It often takes a very long time to receive medical care when IHS is your sole healthcare provider.
- Native American sports mascots aren’t a big deal. They are a big deal. These caricatures are harmful and limit the way young people see themselves. They are also racist as are terms like “redskins.” The American Psychological Association recommended retiring these racist symbols in 2005.
- America was discovered by Columbus or if you prefer, Vikings. The definition to “discover” is being the first to find or observe. When the first Europeans arrived in the “New World,” it had already been inhabited for many thousands of years. It was neither a “new world” nor “discovered.”
But let’s end on a positive note. Do you know how many things that we enjoy today were contributed by American Indigenous peoples? Here are just a few:
- Foods. It’s probably no surprise that jerky – yes, these portable sticks of dried meat—came from nomadic Native hunters. Hundreds of millions of Americans snack on jerky today. Then there’s pumpkins, squash, beans, melons, and more. Avocados were domesticated by indigenous people in the Valley of Mexico more than 4,000 years ago. Guacamole came from the Aztecs about 500 years ago. Another food rightfully credited to Indigenous people is corn. But did you know they also came up with popcorn? And although it may not technically be a food, chewing gum originated from Native people who chewed the milky chicle from the sapodilla tree to freshen breath.
- Sports. Hockey comes from a game called “shinny,” once played by Sauk, Fox, and Assinboine peoples. A curved stick was used to knock a ball into the other team’s goal. In winter, shinny was played on ice. Lacrosse, now popular in the Ivy League, was first played by Iroquoian nations several hundred years ago. Canoeing, relay races, tug-of-war, tobogganing, and ball games were all played by Indigenous people in the Americas long before the arrival of Europeans.
- Medicine. Native people knew the importance of protecting the skin. Items like sunflower oil were used as sunscreen and other substances were used as insect repellent. Burns were cared for with help from the aloe plant. Native people used thousands of plants for medicinal uses to combat colds, aid heart ailments, take care of pain, sedate, and to prevent pregnancy. In pre-Columbian times, South American Indigenous used syringes to clean wounds and inject medicine.
- Oil. Oil from oil pits in the ground was used to caulk and as fuel for fires. Some used it as an effective barrier against insects as well.
- Bunkbeds. Iroquois built beds on top of one another for use in longhouses.
- Democracy. The idea for the government of the United States came from the Iroquoian League of Nations or Confederacy. The six member nations practiced a participatory/representative democracy that the founding fathers adopted.
Native American Heritage Month may be over, but Indigenous people and their cultures live on.