| By Sydney Fairman |
November is National Native American Heritage Month, which was originally authorized and requested by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and has since been issued as an annual proclamation by all subsequent presidents. These proclamations urge Americans to celebrate and recognize the many contributions, accomplishments, and sacrifices of Native Americans and to learn more about American Indian cultures.
In his first proclamation, President Bush encouraged citizens to delve into the “rich, thriving cultures” of Native peoples and emphasized that each tribe “boasts a long and fascinating legacy of its own.” President Barack Obama, in his 2010 proclamation, acknowledged that “America’s journey has been marked both by bright times of progress and dark moments of injustice for American Indians and Alaska Natives” and underscored the importance of “supporting tribal self-determination, security, and prosperity for all Native Americans.”
National Native American Heritage Month, therefore, is a time to look back and to look forward. Before the colonization of North America by European settlers, indigenous people had developed distinct social, economic, and political systems, and unique languages, cultures, and beliefs. After European contact, many tribes were decimated by disease and conflict and suffered from forced relocation and assimilation. Additionally, when Native leaders entered into treaties with the U.S. government, nearly all these agreements were broken, changed, or nullified when it served the government’s interests.
Despite these challenges and hardships, Native peoples have been integral to the development of a unique American culture, and their contributions in such areas as agriculture, science and technology, medicine, and government have had worldwide implications. For example, crops that Native people had cultivated for hundreds of years radically changed European diets and are believed to have played a role in the population explosion that began in the middle of the eighteenth century. In the area of government, the founders of the American nation were inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy—a political and social alliance of five Indian nations (later six) that lived in the northeastern part of North America—when writing the U.S. Constitution. In fact, some historians consider the Iroquois Confederacy one of the world’s oldest democracies.
Native Americans have also played a significant role in the military activities of the United States, enlisting in the U.S. armed forces at a higher rate than other ethnicities. During World War II men from the Navajo nation joined the U.S. Marines and developed an unbreakable code, based on the Navajo language, to communicate military messages. During the course of the war, more than 400 Navajo “code talkers” were used to relay messages on battlefields in the Pacific. The Navajo code was never broken by the enemy. Both fellow soldiers and military officials credit the code talkers as a main factor that led to an Allied victory.
More recently, Native activists have played a major role in the modern environmental justice movement. Their efforts received international attention when, from August 2016 through February 2017, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and their allies actively opposed the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened to destroy the tribe’s drinking water, sacred sites, and historic treaty lands. Calling themselves “water protectors” and asserting “Mni Wičoni” (“Water is Life”), Native protesters and environmental activists focused attention on tribal sovereignty as well as the collective threat of climate change and water pollution.
While mainstream American culture oftentimes depicts Native Americans as relics of the past, only focusing on a handful of notable tribal leaders and historic events, today there are more than five million Native Americans and more than 600 sovereign Native nations. In fact, Native Americans are one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the United States. It is true that Native peoples, especially those who live on reservations, face higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and disease and continue to contend with issues around land rights, cultural appropriation, and harmful stereotypes, but contemporary Native Americans are a vibrant and growing force in American society.
In order to foster a better understanding of indigenous peoples, an initiative called Reclaiming Native Truth is empowering Native Americans to “counter discrimination, invisibility, and the dominant narratives that limit Native opportunity.” This group emphasizes that, “Native Americans live, thrive and lead all across the United States. As students and teachers, artists and soldiers, doctors and lawyers, and in every walk of life, Native American people work, vote, volunteer, pay taxes, invest in the collective future of all our children, and contribute to their tribes and communities across the country.”
Coverage of the wide spectrum of Native American experience can be found in many Gale products. Below is a selection of topic portals, media, and articles from several of our databases:
U.S. History In Context also has a wealth of information to share to help you raise awareness this Native American Heritage Month. We also have a program guide, social media posts, a web banner, and scavenger hunt to use with your patrons. Download Native American Heritage Month marketing materials.