November is Native American Heritage Month. In 1915, before Native American Heritage Month was developed, Native American Day was celebrated. This event was created by Red Fox James, a proud member of the Blackfoot Nation who rode on horseback across the country seeking approval from governors in 24 states to have a day to honor American Indians.
As he made his way from Montana to Washington, DC, James spoke to many communities about Native American culture and heritage. He reached the White House nine months later in December 1915. The governors he had met with designated a day in May as Native American Day. In 1935, Massachusetts proclaimed the fourth Friday in September as the day to honor Native Americans.
As time went on, the observance grew from a day to a week. On August 3, 1990, more than seven decades after James’ 3,000-mile horseback trek, Congress passed a bill under President George H.W. Bush which declared November National Native American Heritage Month (also known as American Indian Heritage Month and Alaska Native Heritage Month). This year marks the 30th anniversary of Native American Heritage Month.
This month is about the acknowledgment of the contributions the indigenous people made to this country. It is also a time for people of other cultures to learn about the rich history that extends long before the founding of this country. However, with an event like Native American Heritage Month, it is hard to recognize and acknowledge each individual Native American Nation. Instead, one must find ways to celebrate the heritage of many tribes.
Today, the United States is home to nearly five million Native Americans, across 547 federally recognized tribes, several located in Massachusetts.
Cheryll Holley, the current Chief of the Hassanamisco band of Nipmuc Native Americans, stated, “All the Indian tribes in Massachusetts have been here for thousands of years. This was our land before anyone else came here! We lived here. We thrived here. We still celebrate our heritage and our ideals just like every other culture here in America and we are not a relic of the past.”
During this commemorative month, it is important to aim towards providing a platform for Native American people to share their culture. This includes traditional food, clothing, art, music, dance, and other ways of life. Providing a platform for Native American people can be done by holding fundraisers for different tribes, supporting Native American businesses, or even simply trying Native American foods. It is also an opportune time to educate friends, family, and the general public to raise awareness about this national observance honoring the original inhabitants of this country.
“We need to develop an understanding of each other and a tolerance that allows us to embrace our differences,”Chief Holley
Native Americans have faced many obstacles historically and continue to do so. Many on reservations live in squalor, in crowded homes with no running water. Their communities have high unemployment rates and they suffer from health disparities. Thus, a meaningful way to observe Native American Heritage Awareness month is to work with tribal leaders and others to advocate for safer and healthier communities.
Attending local commemorative events is another way to participate in this national observance. One can visit Native American historical museums or read the works of Native American authors. The Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness based in Danvers is a great resource that has many opportunities to learn more about the heritage of indigenous people.
Some Native American tribes feel as much of their traditions and language are slowly becoming obsolete. In order to mitigate this, it is important that their traditions and heritage are widely recognized and celebrated in order to allow their heritage to remain for generations to come.