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Celebrating Native American Heritage Day

by Andrew Roush

In his groundbreaking 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins, Standing Rock Sioux historian, theologian, and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. considered the place of Native Americans in modern U.S. society. In his estimation, Native peoples were simultaneously well-known and very poorly understood.

“The more we try to be ourselves the more we are forced to defend what we have never been. The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always THERE. These Indians are fierce, they wear feathers and grunt. Most of us don’t fit this idealized figure since we grunt only when overeating, which is seldom.”

Vine Deloria, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins (New York, 1969: Norman, 1988) 

Since the first sustained European contact, the Native American experience has been both central to the story and realities of the U.S., while remaining distant to many Americans, whose concept of Native cultures and history may be filled in mostly from media depictions.

For educators looking to build an understanding of the history and present situation of Native nations and tribes, there are a number of useful resources. In this post, we’ll explore some tools, tips, and best practices to help you bring Native American heritage and culture into your classroom.

A Month of Celebration

In the United States, November is Native American Heritage Month, and November 27 is designated Native American Heritage Day in 2020. The event is a partnership between the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to promote the history of Native peoples and an understanding of Native culture in today’s society.

On the official website for Native American Heritage Month, you can find online exhibits, links for teachers, and a calendar of events. 

Additionally, PBS has gathered on-demand documentaries, feature articles, short films, and even recipes on their Native American Heritage Month page, here

Specific sites for Native American Heritage Day include Native Hope’s blog post on the background of the day, as well as Native reactions to it. You can read Native reactions to various fall holidays, including Thanksgiving and Halloween, in this post from NPR’s Code Switch. 

Culture in the Classroom

According to Smithsonian, a 2015 study from Penn State University lays bare the inadequacies of education around Native history. The study found that nearly 90 percent of information about Native Americans covered the period before 1900, despite the fact that the Native population has experienced massive growth since the mid-20th century.

As a response, a number of projects have endeavored to reinvigorate the study of Native culture in education. One example is the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Knowledge 360° education initiative. Here you can find helpful articles, lessons, workshops, student guides, and other resources meant to transform the way Native history and culture is taught.

Things to Consider

One vital consideration whenever educators discuss various cultures and groups is ensuring that it is done so with respect and with a genuine understanding of those cultures. The indigenous peoples of the Americas, moreover, are not distant or unknowable. To the contrary, Native Americans are a part of communities across the U.S. and around the world

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle (a city named for a leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes), breaks down a few important tips for teachers looking to inspire awareness and appreciation of Native American culture and history. Some ideas are broad — do your research, have respect, include local insights — while others are more specific. For example, while “Native American, Native, American Indian, Indian, First Peoples, and Indigenous are all terms used by both Native and non-Native people. When possible, most Native people prefer being identified by their specific community.” 

The museum also shares several useful links in addition to tips. Check out these resources:

Recognizing Diversity

While Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up a single ethnic group for the purposes of, for example, the United States Census, Native peoples, like most people groups, organize themselves not just by ethnicity, but by tribe, band, or clan. This is in addition to the many identities layered on all Americans, from their municipal community, neighborhood, or family, to counties, states, and the nation itself. 

As Deloria points out in Custer Died for Your Sins:

Tribes are not simply composed of Indians. They are highly organized as clans, within which variations of tribal traditions and customs govern. While the tribe makes decisions on general affairs, clans handle specific problems. 

Regarding terminology, the Burke Museum also points out that educators should be generally aware of the language they and their students use, and how it may reflect inaccurate beliefs or incomplete understandings of Native peoples. Are students referring to Native groups in the past tense? Are Native peoples described as “them,” or non-Natives as “us”? Teachers should consider all this and more when discussing Native history and heritage. Just as not all Asian, African, or European cultures are the same, neither are the many cultures indigenous to the Americas.

Further, it’s important to recognize the unique situations, legal complexities, and nuances of Native life, both today and in the past. In what ways might our understanding of American history, culture, and politics change when viewed from the Native perspective? As an example, watch Navajo (Diné) activist and computer programmer Mark Charles explore how the law has been applied to Native Americans, and how the U.S. might overcome years of conflict.

Online Resources

Explore these digital tools to help build your understanding, teaching, lessons, and assessment around Native American Heritage Month and Day.

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Photo by Andrew James on Unsplash

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