As some people may know it is Native American Heritage month. I have found that there are many people that don’t know this or even that they had never even heard of it. It has a long history that started as a day and turned into a month.
In 1916, the first state-recognized American Indian Day was declared as the second Saturday in May by the then-governor of New York. The day changed from state to state until 1990 when George H.W. Bush approved a resolution that would designate the month of November as Native American Heritage month.
This has been considered a landmark bill honoring America’s Native tribes. There have been many attempts since then by a number of different states to have Columbus Day renamed and recognized as Native Peoples or Indigenous Peoples day across the country.
Although it is a sad reality that such a thing took 75 years to enact, it is a pattern one can see throughout American history. Natives weren’t granted citizenship until the Indian Citizenship act of 1924 and it was 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed before individual states could no longer deny Native peoples the right to vote and participate in politics.
There’s something else you should know. There is at least one Native American (half, actually) here on campus: me.
There are so many things those words can bring to mind, Native American. Do you automatically go to the stereotypical image of a tall copper-skinned warrior in full headdress? Maybe instead you see the image of a weeping brave beside a polluted river that has been so popular throughout the decades. Perhaps you think of feathers and drumming circles so often portrayed at modern day Pow-wows.
I would say all of these things are stereotypes but—here’s the kicker—also accurate and perfectly okay to associate with the Native Americans and other tribal people.
I sometimes catch flak for this opinion but I see it very simply. Natives wore headdresses, they are extremely tied to the earth and its destruction is painful on a soulful level and yes, many of us use drums or participate in drumming circles. It is a strong connection with the planet and represents the heartbeat of all people as a single interconnected family. That is the reason all these things, be they stereotypes or not, are acceptable as images of Native Americans.
We are also so much more. We are a culture that is struggling to withstand the spreading disease of modern consumerism and hoping to survive in more than memories and history books. There is a deep yearning to tell the stories of a people that are quickly being forgotten.
Stories have been how people of all cultures tell other cultures about themselves. The Native family I am from, the Cherokee have beautiful stories to tell. These are tales that have been spoken to children by elders since 1200C.E. They are ancient, lovely and timely but we are losing the voices that know how to speak these words.
Maybe it is time to read these stories and tell other people them. You don’t have to be of Native descent to appreciate the people and the culture. There are books to read, places to go and people to meet that will give an understanding that even some members of the varied tribes don’t have.
The Native American culture isn’t just dying from the universal guilt of outsiders but also from the stoic attitudes of some from within. It will take everyone as a single people to preserve it but it is a culture worth saving and sharing.