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American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month

To fully understand how the North and South American continents and cultures evolved, and what that means for all those who call these places home, it’s necessary to recognize and acknowledge how indigenous people shaped our history. American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month is a time for us to make those connections and learn more about the history that brings us together.

The first Americans - when and how did the Native Americans and Alaska Natives arrive in the Americas?

Native Americans and Alaskan Natives play an important part of America’s history and what America has become. According to National Geographic, they’ve occupied these lands for at least 20,000 years. Many indigenous histories and traditions state that they’ve always been here. In the 15th century, Europeans arrived in the Americas and, thinking they were in India, began to call these indigenous peoples Indians.

Many peoples, cultures, religions, and traditions

Contrary to being culturally diminished by the 15th century European explorers, indigenous people had dozens of cultures, languages, religions, and traditions. There are countless unique tribes and nations, although many have been erased due to colonialist history. Today the U.S. government officially recognizes almost 600 tribes. Each of which has their own spiritual practices, language, and histories.

For example:

Several tribes, including the Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and Iroquois practiced Green Corn ceremonies to thank the Great Spirit for their bounty, before the corn is eaten.

The Sioux of South Dakota and the Navajo of the southwest held healing rituals and ceremonies, using a sacred hoop, song and dance that could last several days.

Algonquian tribes of Massachusetts launched the “pow wow,” from the Nattick word for “medicine man,” or pau wau, as a way to come together and celebrate success in hunting or battle. Today, over 700 tribes come together for the largest pow wow in North America at The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Frybread, a traditional recipe of the Navajo, or Dine, is the result of the “Long Walk” from Arizona to New Mexico when they were forced off their land by the U.S. government and supplied with flour and lard to survive the journey.

The stomp dance, practiced by Eastern Woodland and Southeastern tribes, including the Muscogee, Euchee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Peoris, Shawnee, Seminole, and Natchez, takes place at the height of crop season and includes all tribe members as a kind of moving prayer.

And, not a lot of people know that America’s founding fathers consulted with the Iroquois nation to write the U.S. Constitution, based on the Iroquois Constitution, or The Great Law of Peace.

American Indian and Alaska Native populations today

Even with the 600 indigenous cultures officially recognized in America, less than two percent of the current U.S. population is defined as Native American. Some research estimates that the pre-European population of Native Americans was as high as 112 million. By 1650 the native population had declined to less than six million, and as of the last U.S census, 6.79 million Americans identify as Native American. Alaska has the highest relative population of Native Americans, who make up 19.74% of the state’s population, or 145,816 people. Vermont has the lowest total number of Native Americans, at only 8,169.

American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month is established

The data above makes it clear that the experiences and traditions of Native communities needs to be fostered and preserved, so to not become lost, or even worse, extinct. This is why we take the month of November to honor Native Americans, their rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories, and to also acknowledge the important contributions they have made to the American landscape.

 American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month wasn't always celebrated as a month in November. The first “American Indian Day” was celebrated in May 1916 in the state of New York.

In 1990, more than seven decades later, President George H.W. Bush expanded this recognition into a month by signing a congressional resolution designating the month of November “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar updates have been made every year since 1994 to recognize what we now call “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.”

This month seeks to provide a platform for Native Americans to share their cultures, traditions, and ways of life. It also gives Native people the opportunity to express to their local, state and Federal legislators their concerns and solutions for building bridges of understanding to shape the future of indigenous people in America, particularly in the areas of health and healthcare, safety, education, jobs and housing. It’s also an opportune time to educate each other about tribal cultures, and to raise awareness of the magnitude of challenges Native people have faced historically and currently, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.

In the words of Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, “America isn’t great because it’s perfect, but because it can always be made more perfect.” Taking a moment to learn more about these very first Americans is one step toward making America a little bit more perfect.

Resources

PBS

National Education Association

Native American Heritage Month


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