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Publication: Becoming Sisters
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(De)constructing knowledges

Native American Heritage Month

Laura  Machado
Laura Machado
+November 17, 2022
Native American Heritage Month, as it is known today, dates back to 1915, when Dr Arthur C. Parker, an Indian of the Seneca Nation and director of the Museum of Arts and Science of Rochester, N.Y., was one of the first proponents of an American Indian Day. In 1915 too, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association drafted a plan concerning this day. As such, from September 28 1915, the second Saturday of each May was declared as "American Indian Day", designed to appeal for recognition of Natives as citizens. Later that year, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode across states seeking approval for a day to honour Native Americans. On December 14, he presented the endorsements of 24 states at the White House. However, this year has no record of a proclaimed national day. [1]
It was in 1916 that the state of New York declared an "American Indian Day". Following from there, in 1976, President Gerald Ford proclaimed the week between October 10-16 as "Native American Awareness Week", with something similar happening in 1986, when it was declared November 23-30 was "American Indian Week". It was not until 1990 that Congress and President George Bush signed a joint resolution proclaiming a month (November) as "National American Indian Heritage Month". Since 1994, this month has been called differently, such as "Native American Heritage Month" or "National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month". [2]
November is now a month dedicated to educating the general population about Native American history and the ongoing challenges they continue to face as years go by. It is, at its core, about celebrating culture, tradition and acknowledging and remembering the past and present contributions of Native people, which include amazing art, technical, and agricultural innovations, as well as the understanding of the environment and the crucial ongoing work in its protection. Indigenous people have protected their lands for thousands of years and passed on knowledge across generations. It is estimated they protect around 80% of biodiversity, which is crucial in times when the climate is reaching its tipping point. At the same time, governments worldwide neglect these as indigenous populations continue to face environmental injustices and human rights violations. [3]
Nemonte Nemquimo, a leader of the Waorani community in the Ecuadorian Amazon province of Pastaza, adds that as they are threatened, so is the climate [4]:
quote "As go our peoples, so goes the planet [...]. The climate depends on the survival of our cultures and our territories."
It is also relevant to note that while there is not an Indigenous People's Month to celebrate indigenous people globally, the United Nations declared in 2003 that August 9 would start being proclaimed as the International Day of the World's Indigenous People to raise awareness, protect and promote the rights of the world's indigenous population. In 2021, President Joe Biden was the first president to recognise Indigenous People's Day officially.
FFU image
© whitney snow
Thanksgiving
Unfortunately, while there is little coverage of November as Native American Heritage Month, much attention is given to Thanksgiving. Perhaps just not in the right way. Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated across the United States, Canada, Grenada, Saint Lucia and Liberia on the fourth Thursday of November every year. Nevertheless, several generations of Americans have been taught only a portion and one side of the history behind this holiday. Often from the perspective of the colonisers who, in 1620, arrived at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving is seen as a commemoration of the friendly and peaceful encounter between English settlers and the Wampanoag tribe for three days of Thanksgiving and feasting.
This mainstream depiction of the holiday is, however, misleading. Narrated on an exceptionally bright note on the relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, it ignores the long and violent history of oppression exercised by European settlers over Native Americans. Native Hope, for example, emphasise the missed chance for teachers to educate students on the massacres of Native tribes - such as the Pequot-which took place in the following years; or the theft of food and Wampanoag graves by English settlers. Additionally, they add that school activities for Thanksgiving typically involve making headdresses on paper, which rejects the diversity and uniqueness of the different cultures and traditions of Native Americans across tribes, reducing and ignoring the spiritual significance behind Native American traditional wear. [5]
For Native Americans, on the other hand, Thanksgiving is now commemorated as a National Day of Mourning. They have protested since 1970, gathering on this same day at Cole's Hill in Plymouth and organising rallies, speeches and marches to oppose the myths of colonial American and European history. In 1970, Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James was invited as a speaker to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. His speech, which included a reflection on the abuses of Pilgrims towards Native Americans, was rejected by the public relations team, who altered his speech. James ended up refusing to read the revised speech and, amongst other Native leaders, organised a protest to address contemporary and historical injustices practised against Native Americans [6]. He also got to read his original speech, where he says:
quote "We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people."
By holding the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day, UAINE (United American Indians of New England), a Native American activist group, seeks to reduce misinformation and recover the hidden history of the hostile, oppressive and violent relationship between Native Americans and European colonists. According to them, the day represents "remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that Indigenous people continue to experience worldwide." In 1997, over clashes with the town of Plymouth, around 25 protestors were arrested for not having a permit to protest. UAINE argued that a permit would not be needed because the land was originally their ancestors', and charges were soon dropped. UAINE considered this a small victory, soon installing a plaque in Plymouth where it can be read:
quote "Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning in the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honour Native ancestors and the struggles of native peoples to survive today."
  • Foto Femme united image
  • Foto Femme united image
© whitney snow
Remembering without forgetting
Finally, it is essential to remember that Indigenous and other marginalised communities should not be just remembered and commemorated during celebratory months. These holidays and celebrations are only one way to shed light on the contributions, existence, and history of communities and people. It is important to remember and acknowledge these months in fighting for visibility and individual and collective rights; however, acknowledgement cannot end as soon as the month ends.
There are several ways in which one can continue to celebrate and strive for the visibility and protection of culture. At first, it might be helpful to understand that the world and societies are designed based on history. When history creates oppression and inequality, societal structures will reflect it, and individuals and/or communities will feel it. By acknowledging this, it is then possible to deconstruct the way in which the past influences the development of the future. Of course, deconstructing knowledge (or the lack thereof) involves understanding our own biases and then striving for information to be spread accordingly in our social and communal groups too.
Additionally to this, supporting Native and Indigenous businesses is crucial. Like with any small business, supporting businesses beyond chains and multinationals helps preserve communities' economic well-being. Donating to new projects and organisations is also important overall. It has been recognised that in countries with indigenous citizens, their art is not given enough recognition compared to non-indigenous artists. As individuals, we can challenge normativity by supporting the work and art of indigenous artists, writers, academics, and so on.
Exploring further

In the world of photography, Indigenous photograph (@ndigenousphoto) is a space worth checking out. Their aim is to elevate the work of Indigenous artists and photojournalists and spread their stories in the visual world. Additionally, they support the media industry in hiring more Indigenous photographers.
  • Foto Femme united image
  • Foto Femme united image
© whitney snow
Whitney Snow (@whitneysnow10) is a United States based photographer who is passionate about telling stories through her images. Her work includes environmental, documentary and portrait photography. She has had her work showcased for many different clients and has exhibited in Washington DC, New York City, and various online entities. In 2021, her work was shortlisted for the COP26 World Summit. Currently, her work can be found at Montana State University and University of Arizona. Whitney works alongside local indigenous artists, documentary filmmakers, the Pulitzer Center, the indigenous organisation If Not Us Then Who, and collaborates with Indigenous Photograph and Women Photograph. In her photographs, Whitney strives to invoke feeling and hopes to document more stories that tell the connection between the environment and the indigenous communities who are striving to preserve their natural resources.
Laura  Machado
Laura Machado
articles

Sociology graduate with a passion for writing, people and visual culture. Laura studied visual arts ...

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