Native American Heritage Day — this November 23 — was only designated as such in 2009, “to honor the contributions, achievements, sacrifices, and cultural and historical legacy of the original inhabitants of what is now the United States and their descendants: the American Indian and Alaska Native people.”
In 2009, President Obama signed legislation permanently establishing the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. Indeed, by a Presidential Proclamation, all of November of 2012 has also been designated National Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate and honor Native Americans while never forgetting that there are “parts of our shared history that have been marred by violence and tragic mistreatment” and that “for centuries, Native Americans faced cruelty, injustice, and broken promises.”
The University of Montana has already celebrated Native American Heritage Day with a Sunrise Ceremony, traditional dance performances and an indigenous menu at the university cafeteria. Such celebrations are also occurring throughout the U.S., in Minnesota, Arizona and elsewhere. If unable to participate in any actual events, we should all take pause on Friday and seek to enlarge our knowledge and understanding of the vital role of Native Americans in the history of the U.S. and the injustices too many have too often endured.
Louise Erdrich Wins the National Book Award
“The Round House” is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy, Joe. It begins with a terrible act of violence, the sexual assault of his mother. She is left too traumatized to reveal what happened to her husband, a tribal judge, or the police. In search of justice, Joe and three of his friends decide to take matters into their own hands.
As a New York Times review says, the book “opens out to become a detective story and a coming-of-age story, a story about how Joe is initiated into the sadnesses and disillusionments of grown-up life and the somber realities of his people’s history.” That is, Erdrich’s book is a powerful starting point in understanding this country’s legacy of mistreatment of Native Americans.
In addition, in reading Erdrich’s writing, we should be careful not to think of her work as about the culture of history of “others” but – certainly for us Americans — as our culture and history.
Amid too many conservatives’ fiery rhetoric about immigration and what a “real American” is, on this year’s Native American Heritage Day we should recall that the majority of us trace our ancestors to places other than America; that most of us are the “others” here and not the natives. In honoring the lives of so many Native Americans — many of whom perished, if not from terrible violence, from illnesses they were exposed to by European settlers — ought we not all to reflect on what was or what might have been our forebears’ role in the history and trials of indigenous peoples of the Americas?
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Photo showing Dan Akee, WWII Veteran, Navajo Code Talker, Diné Nation, talking with members of the Dishchii' Bikoh' Apache Group from Cibecue, Arizona, by Grand Canyon NPS