November is Native American Heritage Month…or American Indian Heritage Month. Whatever term you prefer. I like our neighbors to the North’s use of “First Nations” to describe the original inhabitants. Sometimes it can be confusing to know what term to use. As long as it’s not derogatory, the name is not as important as the people and the recognition.
Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca in New York, was the first we know of to suggest a day to recognize to honor Native American Heritage. The first recognition day occurred New York in 1916. Other states followed with a day of recognition on the fourth Friday in September. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush designated November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” It’s a good time, between Columbus Day (or as my kids used to call it, “when Columbus got lost” day) and Thanksgiving, holidays associated with many untruths.
Why recognize native people for one month each year? It would be ideal if recognition was on a daily basis throughout the year, but it’s not. Like women and African Americans, devoting a month to recognition of history and accomplishments forces people to take notice. And we do need to take notice.
Native Americans are the only cultural group to see a population decline, make that a significant population decline. In the years after colonization and westward expansion, many Indian nations lost more than half their population from violent conflict and European diseases, such as smallpox. Some nations ceased to exist. Far too often, decreasing the population was a purposeful act. Today, we call this genocide.
The uniqueness of Native Americans are that they aren’t one group, but many nations. Lakota people aren’t the same as those who are Choctaw, Hopi, Coeur d’Alene, or Inuit. We’re talking different histories, traditions, and languages. When you wipe out a nation, those things are gone. The boarding school/assimilation movement of the last century left people alive, but took the languages and traditions.
Native people are still at risk. They are more likely to suffer from diabetes and tuberculosis. Poverty, alcoholism, and suicide are at epidemic rates. More needs to be done to help people at risk.
One thing we should all do is take the opportunity during Native American Heritage Month to learn something newTRUTH about the history of the native people. And then to recognize all the amazing people around us. People like Sherman Alexie, Eloisa Garcia Tamez, Patty Talahongva, Notah Begay, Chris Eyre, John Herrington, Joanelle Romero to name a few.
Happy Native American Heritage Month.
Available at Amazon.