Debra Utacia Krol
We’re rolling through November, recognized as Native American Heritage Month, when many of us celebrate the nation’s rich and diverse Indigenous history. Tribal communities, as well as cities and states, host parades, powwows, art shows, award ceremonies and other events to spotlight Native cultures.
On Nov. 15, people post photos of ourselves on social media wearing moccasins, as part of “Rock your Mocs.” And in Los Angeles, the LA Skins Fest, scheduled for Nov. 19 to 24, will honor emerging Native actors, filmmakers, writers, directors and other artists.
“This month recognizes the first peoples in this country, treasuring the beauty, art, dance, and language of all tribes,” says Patricia Hibbeler (Salish/Kootenai), the CEO of the Phoenix Indian Center.
But the idea to set aside time in the year to recognize and honor America’s First People emerged slowly over nearly eight decades before the federal government’s official designation. The first pass came more than 100 years ago, when Dr. Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y., worked with the Boy Scouts of America to adopt a “First American” day in 1912. And for three years, the Scouts recognized the day.
Then in 1914, Red Fox James (Blackfeet) rode across the nation on a horse, securing endorsements from 24 state governments to name a day honoring Native peoples. He presented them to the White House the following year.
That same year, in 1915, the Society of American Indians issued a proclamation naming the second Sunday in May, American Indian Day. Society president and Arapahoe citizen Rev. Sherman Coolidge appealed to the U.S. government to make the day official at the same time as the proclamation. It was accompanied by the first formal appeal for public recognition of Indians as American citizens. (It would take another decade before Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, granting automatic citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S.)
New York was the first state to declare American Indian Day on that May date in 1916. Other states opted for different days to celebrate Native nations, with some designating the Columbus Day holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day.
The first official designation from the federal government came in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a congressional joint resolution naming Nov. 23 to 30 “American Indian Week.” And, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed a similar resolution naming the entire month as “Native American Heritage Month.”
So why November?
Some think it’s because of the connection between Thanksgiving Day and Native people, particularly the legend of the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. Although that story has been debunked by both Indigenous peoples and scholars, the trope of black-robed Pilgrims breaking bread with shirtless Wampanoag men continues unabated.
As Michelle Tirado writes in Indian Country Today, “what most people do not know about the first Thanksgiving is that the Wampanoag and Pilgrims did not sit down for a big turkey dinner and it was not an event that the Wampanoag knew about or were invited to in advance.” Some Native people even gather at Coles Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for a “National Day of Mourning” on the fourth Thursday in November.
But the designation of a single month to honor the original people of this land has left some wondering whether as a country we shouldn’t be honoring Indigenous people throughout the year. And some Native people feel conflicted over the decision to make November as the month when Native peoples are spotlighted. Redner says, “the fact they chose November shows they are clueless as to the mental conflict we must endure over Thanksgiving.”
Geri Hongeva Camarillo (Navajo), board president of the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association, says she feels Indigenous every day. “I don’t need a holiday to be in a hózho (the wellness philosophy of the Navajo people) space,” she says. “It was never in Navajo culture to celebrate these holidays. My celebratory days are when I am with my elders, those days are priceless to me.”
But the reality is that Native peoples have long celebrated the coming of the fall season after an abundant harvest. As Indigenous activist Trina Redner (Tlingit/Grand Ronde) says, “Thanksgiving is and always has been a part of who we are. Everything on a Thanksgiving table is what we would have had in a particular region on that day.”
Artist Liz Wallace (Navajo/Washo/Maidu) agrees, noting that Native peoples have marked the harvest with a festival. “While it’s crucial to talk about the real history of Thanksgiving, it’s also crucial to take time to share a meal with loved ones,” she says.
At least one tribal community has good reason to celebrate during November. Beginning in the early 1970s and for more than a decade, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona had battled the federal government over plans for a dam that would drown three-fourths of the tribe’s 24,000-acre reservation. The ongoing clash stressed the financially strapped tribe of 900 people until Nov. 15, 1981, when then-Interior Secretary James Watt formally halted a project. That event has been celebrated ever since.
Wallace, the artist, says it’s important for Native people wishing to effect change to recognize that “it’s going to be a long, painful process since the oppressive colonizer narratives are so c in the U.S. I think we need to keep in mind that this is the Iditarod, not a 50-yard dash,” she says.
And, even though Indigenous peoples continue to heal from more than 500 years of colonialization and oppression—while contending with emerging challenges around climate and ecological crises—tribal citizens also use the month for education.
Like other Native communities, for example, the 80,000 Indigenous people living in the Phoenix metro area hold events throughout the months honoring the many tribal cultures represented in the fifth-largest U.S. city. Among the events are a Native American women’s conference, that will feature women from tribes from across the U.S. who will gather to empower and lift up each other while exploring solutions around health and healing; the Native American Family Health Festival, an art show and food tasting event showcasing traditional foods, and a toy drive/music concert featuring local Indigenous performing artists.
“We have been part of organizing that honoring for over 27 years with Native American Recognition Days, before the month was passed by President Bush,” Hibbeler says. “I am thankful that now the entire country celebrates together.”
“[Native American Heritage Month] allows for us to remind [non-Natives] that we are still here, living here, despite their attempts to make us like them,” says Redner, the Phoenix Indian Center CEO. “We will continue to survive, but it’s our time to thrive now; it’s time for the seventh generation to use our knowledge.”
Indigenous storyteller Debra Utacia Krol is an award-winning journalist with an emphasis on Native issues, environmental and science issues, and travel. She is an enrolled member of the Xolon (also known as Jolon) Salinan Tribe from the Central California coastal ranges. Krol’s forceful and deeply reported stories about peoples, places and issues have won nearly a dozen awards. Originally published at YES! Magazine.
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