by Dylan Rodgers, 9
When you think of the month November, things like turkey, family, feasts, cold weather, and crunch leaves come to mind, but there’s another important meaning to this month as well: 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 Dec. 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.
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.
This year, President Biden issued a proclamation in which he admitted that inequities still exist and discussed his hope for our country. “Our Nation cannot live up to the promise of our founding as long as inequities affecting Native Americans persist. My Administration is committed to advancing equity and opportunity for all American Indians and Alaska Natives and to helping Tribal Nations overcome the challenges that they have faced from the pandemic, climate change, and a lack of sufficient infrastructure in a way that reflects their unique political relationship,” said Biden, “Native American roots are deeply embedded in this land — a homeland loved, nurtured, strengthened, and fought for with honor and conviction. This month and every month, we honor the precious, strong, and enduring cultures and contributions of all Native Americans and recommit ourselves to fulfilling the full promise of our Nation together.”
There’s a few things you can do to celebrate this month. A few ideas include visiting a reservation or museum, attending or hosting an educational event, ‘decolonizing’ your Thanksgiving dinner, reading the work of Native American authors, and finally, by supporting native-owned businesses and charities.
There are 574 Native American tribes in the U.S. today and approximately 6.79 million Native Americans, and their numerous contributions to agriculture, science, literature, music, and all other aspects of life has prompted lawmakers to set aside a month to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. This is also an opportunity to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges. This year, find a way to support Native people’s heritage and honor their struggle.