Why do We Have Native American Heritage Month?

University of New Mexico powwow. Photo Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

University of New Mexico powwow. Photo Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

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.

About Dina

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Dina’s research interests focuses on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. Dina is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and her forthcoming book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, is scheduled for release by Beacon Press in April 2019.
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