As you may or may not know, November is Native American Heritage Month. On the heels of Columbus Day, and all the way through November to Thanksgiving, Native Americans become the topic of public discussions more than the rest of the year. If it seems obvious that the month of Thanksgiving is a good time to talk about Indians, given American narratives about pilgrims and Indians, you would be right. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
The Purpose of National Holidays
Nations (or more specifically, states, as in nation–states) celebrate national holidays for a variety of reasons. Their function is always patriotic in nature; that is, they serve to reinforce a sense of national identity. Independence Day, Columbus Day, and Presidents’ Day, all illustrate this point perfectly. Even ethnic holidays or commemorations serve that purpose, like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Black Heritage Month (February), and Native American Heritage month. In the case of Native and African American commemorations, they reinforce the ethnic diversity of the United States (what scholars call the multicultural state). Such celebrations create a sense of unity and are meant to promote healing from the trauma inflicted on both groups through the historic abuses of colonization and slavery.
Native American Heritage Month and Columbus Day
The creation of Native American Heritage month, however, had another more dubious purpose. It was created by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, two years before the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’s historic first voyage. With major celebrations planned, Bush knew there would be a backlash from American Indians who view Columbus’s voyages as the beginning of the genocide against Native peoples. Bush also proclaimed 1992 as the “Year of the American Indian.”
To read more about the history of Native American Heritage Month, see my longer article here.