Celebrating Native American Heritage Month

How did this cultural observance get started?

Native American Heritage Celebration
Native American Heritage Month Celebration. Flickr.com

Each November, the federal government observes Native American Heritage Month to recognize the contributions indigenous peoples have made to the United States. To say that American Indians have made significant sacrifices for the nation would be a huge understatement. What they have forsaken so the U.S. could be the world superpower it is today can never be replaced. Given the toll that colonization of the New World had on the Native way of life, it’s not surprising that nearly 100 years ago a movement began to honor American Indians with a day of recognition.


The Origins of Native American Heritage Month

Native American Heritage Month owes its existence in large part to the efforts of Red Fox James, Dr. Arthur C. Parker and the Rev. Sherman Coolidge, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Back in 1914, James, a Blackfoot, traveled by horse to a variety of states for the sole purpose of garnering support for a holiday to recognize Native Americans. In December of the following year, James arrived at the White House with written support for an American Indian Day from 24 state governments. In May 1916, New York became the first state to observe the day. Illinois followed suit, first recognizing the holiday in 1919.

During the same period that Red Fox James worked to launch American Indian Day, Arthur C. Parker, a museum director of Seneca heritage, swayed the Boy Scouts of America to dedicate a day to observing the “First Americans,” which the Scouts agreed to for three years.

The Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, contributed to the effort for a Native American observance as well. President of the Congress of the American Indian Association, Coolidge proclaimed the second Saturday of May American Indian Day after his association came to a consensus about celebrating the observance.

Coolidge’s proclamation also included a request for the federal government to acknowledge American Indians as U.S. citizens, a shocking development in hindsight given that the indigenous presence in the country predated that of recognized American citizens by hundreds of years. In 1924, all American Indians received U.S. citizenship.

Native American Awareness Week and Month

Sixty years after the first American state observed American Indian Day, President Gerald Ford proclaimed Oct. 8, 1976, “Native American Awareness Week.” The federal government dedicated an entire month to recognize the contributions of Native Americans to the U.S. in 1990, when President George H. W. Bush named November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Themes for the month in recent years have included tribal diversity, celebrating the American Indian spirit and paying gratitude to elders.

The year before Native American Heritage Month came into being, the South Dakota Legislature designated 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” between Natives and whites, with the state governor replacing Columbus Day with American Indian Day. Eight years later, California followed in South Dakota’s footsteps and created a state holiday in honor of Native peoples.

A Controversial Year

In 1992, the nation marked the 500th anniversary of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World with a range of festivities. But the Native American community largely objected to these quincentennial celebrations considering that when Columbus and his crew landed in the Americas, they enslaved, tortured and sexually exploited the indigenous populations they encountered. Moreover, many Native Americans died from diseases spread by the European explorers. Because of this ugly history, some indigenous people refuse to celebrate Columbus Day, let alone partake in festivities to honor the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the U.S.

Due to the concerns raised by Native American groups, Congress named 1992 “The Year of the American Indian.” The year served as a time “to hold public education events, commemorations of ancestral sacrifices and contributions to America, and celebrations for the survival of Native peoples over five centuries,” the BIA reports.

Native American Heritage Month Celebrations

Each November, government entities, community organizations, museums and American Indian groups observe Native American Heritage Month with exhibitions of indigenous arts and crafts, films about Native Americans, festivals, book signings, public discussions, theatrical performances and more.

Native American Heritage Month celebrates the variety of ethnic groups indigenous to North America. It’s important to remember that these groups have unique customs, languages and beliefs and not to stereotype them as one and the same. They live in a range of different geographic locations across the country—the Great Plains, the desert, the tundra and the swamp. They are far from homogenous.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Celebrating Native American Heritage Month." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2016, thoughtco.com/native-american-heritage-month-2834536. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, December 1). Celebrating Native American Heritage Month. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/native-american-heritage-month-2834536 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Celebrating Native American Heritage Month." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/native-american-heritage-month-2834536 (accessed November 22, 2017).