November is National American Indian Heritage Month


Caroline Li, Staff Writer

In addition to being the month of Thanksgiving, November is National American Indian Heritage Month and has been since 1990. Seeing as how Thanksgiving is a celebration of Native American-European relations, it seems all too fitting that the month itself would be a homage to the Native American story as a whole. This is the history of how November became National Native American History Month, the Arcadia High School (AHS) library’s plans to spotlight books written by Native American authors, and how we can all participate in understanding Native American history.

The first instance of a national holiday commemorating Native American heritage occurred in 1915, during the presidency of President Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge issued a proclamation that the second Saturday of each May would observe American Indian Day, but different state legislatures went on to celebrate on different dates (some even on Columbus Day, which was formally recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2021). To this day, it is generally celebrated sometime between the fourth Monday of September to the fourth Thursday of November.

75 years later, President George H. W. Bush passed a resolution declaring November to be National American Indian Heritage Month, which it continues to be to today.

As history has taught us, Native Americans’ past is fraught with tragedy and injustice; however, it would be ignorant to assume that this is no longer the case. Many descendants of the Native Americans who were subjected to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and other counts of Native American persecution are still struggling to make their voices heard. Holidays of commemoration allow them to do just that.

“We just have been struggling for so long for the vast majority of mainstream America and culture to recognize that—that we are not just in history books,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Yup’ik fisherwoman. “We’re still fighting for our lands and our waters and our way of life…. We have struggled for so long with being made invisible by mainstream society.” 

Activists like Alannah teach us that Native Americans are still affected by the cultural and lingual extermination their ancestors were subjected to and that they deserve recognition of their rights and lands. 

“I think including more Native American history in schools is of the utmost importance,” said Mr. Gerry Wang, one of AHS’ U.S. History teachers. “The history of Native Americans is one of tragedy, exploitation, and marginalization that many historians classify as genocidal. In fact, one of the biggest [Native American] genocides took place in our very state…and has been recognized by our state government as such. We cannot work towards justice until the people of this country learn this ‘hard’ history, as in it’s bound to take people to uncomfortable places mentally and spiritually. But once we learn about it, then we can recognize it, and then we can start the process of healing, restitution, and closure.”

“Mainstream America needs to let Native Americans center themselves in their own story and show…who they are, and what their culture is, and what they would like us to know about their culture. Rather than us centering ourselves in the story,” said Mrs. Heather Moore, another U.S. History teacher at AHS. “First and foremost, it’s about respecting Native American culture and traditions, and understanding that Native Americans are not just confined to a history book; 

Native American tribes are still around today. And they’re in a situation that is the effect of centuries of policies, stereotypes, marginalization, greed, etc… To begin to undo all of that is a monumental task, but one that everybody must step up to try and tackle.

“There needs to be policy conversations in which Native American voices are central to say, ‘What do you need in your life to help you be the best you you can be?’ And then how can the community at large, America at large, assist with that…It’s about listening and respecting… Native American needs from their perspective, not from the perspective of outsiders saying ‘this is what you need.’”

As our teachers put it, Native American voices exist outside of the vacuum of history. They are real people with real struggles. And as future leaders and history-makers, students of all people should know that history is a tool for confronting present issues, not locking them away in the past; when used effectively, history dedicated to the recognition of oppressed communities promotes the dissemination of knowledge that is too often omitted from our history textbooks and yet still affects marginalized communities to this day.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Potawatomi environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her experience trying to teach herself Potawatomi in honor of her ancestors, who had been forced to renounce the language by American settlers. 

She joked that, when trying to communicate in Potawatomi with her sister, they “freely insert high school Spanish words to fill in the gaps, making a language we call Spanawatomi.” 

Kimmerer goes on to explain that there are only nine fluent Potawatomi speakers left in the world and that she is not one of them. This seemingly innocuous example is one of the countless ramifications of cultural erasure, which ultimately make up the unheard tragedies playing out in the backdrop of American culture: indigenous culture ignored, endangered, and in many cases, gone extinct.

So what can we do to celebrate National Native American History Month? You can start by checking out the month’s official website, which features a variety of events, essays, and guest speakers that offer unique insight into the real experiences of indigenous individuals. Aside from that, each tribe celebrates in a different way. Most often, people watch or perform traditional dances, gather with family, and eat good food. Like other holidays, ceremonies and powwows are held, which feature traditional dancing, singing, and celebration as well. In honor of the month, the AHS library has compiled a list of books written by various Native American authors that can be found on their Instagram and library booklist.

The best way non-Native American individuals can commemorate the heritage of these persecuted communities is by making a genuine effort to educate ourselves and advocating for their voices to be heard. While heritage months are a time to celebrate, they are also opportunities for education and cultural connection. Let’s make the most of this month by interacting with resources that enable us to understand these individuals—not just through their portrayals in history, but through reading their books, listening to their songs, and learning their traditions. Because even though it seems as if every month is some history month or other and it can get tiring to hear the same things over and over again each year, there is real value in doing our part to recognize the struggles our present is built on. 

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some interesting articles on Native American veterans, traditional dances, and ceremonies (which vary from tribe to tribe), and the library has a great list of Native American-authored books (fourth slide) that you won’t regret squeezing into your booklist.


Photo by Andrew James