J.C. Elliott-High Eagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, authored Pub.L. 94–103, 89 Stat. 486 (S.J. Res. 209) for American Indian Awareness Week, October 10 - 16, 1976. It was signed by President Gerald R. Ford. This became the first official week of national recognition for Native Americans.
On August 3, 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month. The November celebration has also been called National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month since 1994.
In years to come the name could again be changed for the sake of accuracy to North American Indigenous People’s Heritage Month. North America includes (23) countries and dozens of possessions and territories - all Caribbean and Central America countries, Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, the United States of America, as well as Greenland. Politically, Hawaii is considered part of North America, so Native Hawaiians would be included even though geographically, Hawaii is not part of any continent.
Why does this matter?
It’s about historical accuracy and cultural identity. Many Americans identify as Irish, English, Italian, French, German or any of the nationalities/ethnicities of their European ancestors who came to America. It’s accepted, even expected. The contributions of their ancestors are duly noted in our history books and once a year we celebrate Thanksgiving in honor of the beginning of the successful European colonization of America.
When first contact was made, indigenous cultures and the mostly Christian European immigrants were quite different. Some Northeastern and Southwestern indigenous cultures were matrilineal (based on kinship with the mother or the female line) and within most Indigenous American tribes hunting grounds and agricultural lands were shared by the entire tribe. Europeans were patriarchal cultures and supported individual property rights with respect to land ownership.
These cultural differences and shifting alliances among different Native nations in times of war became a source of tension, social disruption and often violence. But, there were also times of cooperation and the beneficial exchange of hunting and farming techniques, inventions and medicines. Last year we highlighted some of the contributions by Native Americans in an article, https://www.thisawfulawesomelife.com/home/2017/11/5/we-have-more-reasons-than-the-first-thanksgiving-to-thank-native-americans-by-fran-joyce.
First contact also brought new diseases to the new World. Native Americans suffered high fatalities from contact with Old World diseases which were new to Native Americans who had not yet acquired immunities. Smallpox epidemics probably caused the greatest loss of life for indigenous populations during this time.
Historically, Native Nations were considered semi-independent nations. Native Americans generally lived in communities separate from British settlers. After the Revolutionary War, the newly established federal government signed treaties at a government-to-government level. In the 1830’s President Andrew Jackson pushed for the relocation of Native Americans in the South, supposedly for their own protection, as American settlements continued to expand into Native American lands. Despite several treaties, Native Americans were forcibly relocated to the Great Plains area.
As Americans continued to move westward, the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act allocated funds to move western tribes onto reservations. These Reservations were protected and enclosed by the US government supposedly because of the growing encroachment of whites moving westward. This act set the precedent for modern-day Native American reservations.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 ended recognition of independent native nations. The American government considered them "domestic dependent nations" subject to federal law. This 1871 Act preserved the rights and privileges agreed to under certain treaties, including a large degree of tribal sovereignty. Many, but not all, Native American reservations are still independent of state law. The actions of tribal citizens on these reservations are accountable only to tribal courts and federal law.
During the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, Christian missionaries (paid by the American government) established Native American boarding schools, also known as Indian Residential Schools primarily to assimilate Native American children and youth into American culture, while providing a basic American education. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) founded additional boarding schools based on the assimilation model of the off-reservation Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The children were forbidden from speaking in their native languages, dressing in their native clothing or participating in any Native rituals or celebrations. This robbed many Native Americans of their culture and history.
It seems odd that our Constitution did not extend citizenship to all Native Americans. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States who had not yet obtained it. This allowed Native Americans to vote in state and federal elections, and extended the Fourteenth Amendment protections. However, Native Americans were still denied voting rights by some states for several decades, and Bill of Rights protections only apply to tribal governments mandated by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Today, there are 562 Native American tribes in the United States. The largest are Navajo, Cherokee and Sioux. More than 5 million people in the U.S. are Native people. It’s estimated that 78% of Native people do not live on reservations. Preserving Native American culture is a priority for Native Americans. Respecting and making an effort to learn about Native American cultures should be a priority for all Americans. This Thanksgiving, please take some time to read about Native American culture and history and make it a valuable part of American history.
Images taken from: https://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/about/