Celebrating Cultural Heritage Months

For far too long the achievements and history of minority groups in the United States were overlooked in textbooks, the media, and society as a whole. However, cultural heritage months have helped to give communities of color the recognition they deserve. The history of these cultural observances sheds light on the achievements minority groups have made in a country where they often faced discrimination. Read on to learn the time of year Americans observe various cultural holidays and what types of celebrations take place in recognition of them. 

Native American Heritage Month

Native American woman in traditional dress standing among grass on prairie
Getty Images/Christian Heeb

Cultural observances in honor of American Indians have taken place in the United States since the early 1900s. During this period, three men -- Red Fox James, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, and the Rev. Sherman Coolidge -- worked tirelessly for the government to recognize Native Americans ​with a holiday. New York and Illinois were among the first states to recognize American Indian Day. Fast forward to 1976. Then, President Gerald Ford signed legislation to make part of October “Native American Awareness Week.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed November “National American Indian Heritage Month.”

How Black History Month Began

Mural illustrating the black leaders of the civil rights (Malcom X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas), located in Philadelphia
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Without the efforts of historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month may have never come to be. The Harvard-educated Woodson desired to make the achievements of African Americans known to the world. To accomplish this, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and announced in a 1926 press release his intention to launch Negro History Week. Blacks and whites alike spread the word about the event and even fundraised to make it happen. Woodson decided to celebrate the week in February because that month included the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglass, the famed black abolitionist. In 1976, the U.S. government expanded the weeklong celebration to Black History Month.

Hispanic Heritage Month

Mexican Teenagers Dressed up for Festival
Getty Images/Jeremy Woodhouse

Latinos have a long history in the United States, but the first weeklong cultural observance in their honor didn’t take place until 1968. Then President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation to formally recognize the achievements of Hispanic Americans. It would take twenty years before the 7-day event expanded to a month-long observance. Unlike other cultural heritage months, however, Hispanic Heritage Month takes place over the span of two months -- Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Why is it celebrated then? Well, that time period includes important events in Hispanic history. Latin American countries including Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica all won their independence on Sept. 15. In addition, Mexican Independence Day takes place on Sept. 16, and Chilean Independence Day occurs on Sept. 18. Moreover, Día de la Raza takes place on Oct. 12.

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Tourists at chinatowns mid autumn festival at night, San Francisco, California, USA
Getty Images/Cultura RM Exclusive/Rosanna U

The creation of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month owes its thanks to several lawmakers. New York Congressman Frank Horton and California Congressman Norman Mineta sponsored a bill in the U.S. House mandating that part of May be recognized as “Asian-Pacific Heritage Week.” In the Senate, lawmakers Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga entered a similar bill in July 1977. When the bills passed the Senate and the House alike, President Jimmy Carter declared the beginning of May “Asian-Pacific Heritage Week.” Twelve years later President George H.W. Bush turned the weeklong observance into a month-long event. Lawmakers chose the month of May because it marks milestones in Asian-American history. For example, the first Japanese American immigrants entered the U.S. on May 7, 1843. Twenty-six years after that, on May 10, Chinese workers completed building America’s transcontinental railroad.

Irish-American Heritage Month

parade for st patricks day, nyc
Getty Images/Rudi Von Briel

Irish Americans make up the second largest ethnic group in the United States. Yet, the fact that March is Irish-American Heritage Month remains unknown to much of the public. While St. Patrick’s Day, also in March, is celebrated by the masses, month-long celebrations of the Irish remain few and far between. The American Foundation for Irish Heritage has tried to raise awareness about the month, a time to reflect on the progress Irish Americans have made since they first came to the U.S. in waves in the 19th century. The Irish have overcome prejudice and stereotyping and gone on to become of the most privileged groups in the country.