Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Corner:
Hispanic Heritage Month
In November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. The first American Indian Day was celebrated in 1916 after Blackfoot Nation member Red Fox James rode across the nation on horseback to rally for states to have a day honoring American Indians. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a resolution declaring November “National American Indian Heritage Month.” It has also been celebrated as “American Indians and Alaska Native Month.” In 2009, President Barack Obama issued a declaration to designate November as National Native American Month. It now comes soon after Indigenous People’s Day, celebrated the second Monday of each October, and together these efforts provide at least a small degree of belated acknowledgment of the contributions and perseverance of indigenous peoples.
Native Americans are not a single culture or nation but include a rich variety of cultures, nations, and languages, even after centuries of attempts to displace them or eradicate their cultures. Many modern historians estimate that there were tens of millions of Native Americans living in the Americas prior to 1492. The largest Native American tribes include the Navajo, Cherokee, Sioux, Chippewa, Choctaw, Apache, Pueblo, Iroquois, Creek, and Blackfoot.
Native Americans have made multiple contributions to the history of the country and the continent. These include the identification of edible plants and the development of agriculture based on corn, beans, and squash, without which early European colonists would likely have starved during the cold colonial winters. Native Americans also pioneered crop rotation to preserve soil fertility, a practice that “modern” practices of sustainable agriculture have only recently rediscovered. Additionally, many Native Americans raised animals such as turkeys, llamas, guinea pigs, and honeybees for food.
One painful historical irony is that November is also the month of Thanksgiving celebrations in the US, and despite sanitized versions of history that many of us may have grown up with, many Native Americans see that original Thanksgiving as commemorating the beginning of centuries of oppression by Europeans, who benefitted from indigenous contributions such as agriculture, roads, and forest clearances. Still, elements of that original Native American culture survive in the form of the Thanksgiving meal itself. Sean Sherman, founder, and CEO of The Sioux Chef and the author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen reminds us that “We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity, and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk and think about anyway: the food… People may not realize it, but what every person in this country shares, and the very history of this nation, has been in front of us the whole time. Most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice, and the like. We should embrace this.
This celebration of food, and the communal or familial sharing of it, strikes another deep historical chord that spans cultures. The just-finished month of October is a time when many cultures traditionally celebrate the end of harvest season – in fact, Samhain, the Celtic holiday that helped inspire our modern Halloween celebrations, marked the end of harvest season and preparation for winter. And while the timing varies depending on the country, its climate and the character of its seasons, the end of harvest season is often followed by a celebration of the availability of food, with one example being the Yam Festival celebrated in Nigeria and Ghana. Our own Thanksgiving, while only becoming an official holiday because of President Lincoln’s desire to lift American spirits during the Civil War, can be seen as part of this tradition.
Perhaps this all helps us understand what the biggest takeaway of this month might be. Historical truths aren’t always, or even often, pleasing to know, and we need to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and their impact on the present. But we also see ample reminders of our common humanity, our common grounding in the rhythms of the earth, and in gratitude for what we have, and what we’ve survived. When we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, and when we celebrate any other personal holidays important to us, let’s reflect on that shared humanity. We’re all part of a story that’s constantly evolving, and there are no minor characters.
Resources and additional info:
Mann, Charles. “Native Intelligence”
“The Native Population of the Americas in 1492.”
“How States are Addressing Violence Against Indigenous Women”
Samhain - World History Encyclopedia
Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation – Education Updates (archives.gov)