Rise Up

America Should Take Better Notice of Native American Heritage Month

It's about a lot more than a symbolic gesture. It's about reckoning with a violent and awful past.
November 23, 2017, 3:00pm
Photo via VICELAND

President Donald Trump, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, proclaimed November National Native American Heritage Month on Oct. 31.

“Native Americans are a testament to the deep importance of culture and vibrancy of traditions, passed down throughout generations. This month, I encourage all of our citizens to learn about the rich history and culture of the Native American people,” states the proclamation.

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However, it wasn’t long after this proclamation that Trump posted a tweet on November 3, calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), “Pocahontas.” Critics were quick to point out the president’s name-calling as an insensitivity to those with Native American roots.

“I think that if we didn't have Native American Awareness Month, then we wouldn't have any mandatory time set aside to raise awareness."

It’s likely why, despite federal proclamations of a heritage month in November for Native Americans since 1990, that many people still don’t understand why the month exists or live in communities that don’t provide celebrations or awareness in honor of the month, at all.

Massachusetts declared November Native American Awareness Month years ago and has seen tremendous strides in the community. Some attribute this improvement of race relations to the state’s acknowledgment of its indigenous community.


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According to Boston.com, "Since the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness was incorporated in 1989, co-founder and president Burne Stanley-Peters said awareness of native culture has improved among the general population.”

“I think that if we didn't have Native American Awareness Month, then we wouldn't have any mandatory time set aside to raise awareness. Now, governmental and academic spaces put aside time and funds to have speakers and presentations,” Claudia Fox Tree, a board member of the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, told VICE Impact.

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The Mashpee Wampanoag, the Native American tribe who hosted the colonists for the first Thanksgiving, are still very involved in the state – especially in the month of November. The Mashpee Wampanoag hosted a Thanksgiving event at the Massachusetts Statehouse on November 13, with the purpose of promoting “peace and unity among all Americans,” according to the Associated Press.

“My experience has been that many (even most) people know very little about Native American history and culture, so any information is important, and often new,” Fox Tree said, referring to the importance of people spending time in the month November to not only give thanks but to raise awareness and celebrate Native American culture.

“Also, it gives us, as indigenous people, a place to address significant issues that are in the news or lacking in complete understanding,” she added.

It’s likely that if the rest of the country followed Massachusetts’s approach to the month of November that it could help with peace relations on a national level by helping to shed light on the groups who need it most for Thanksgiving.

Being able to help or spread awareness isn’t a hard feat. There are many ways for those, no matter their location, to get involved this month and honor Native American heritage. The first step is to understand why Thanksgiving is also known as National Mourning Day by some Americans who gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, each year.

“All around the country, schools continue to dress up their children in little Pilgrim and Indian costumes and the Indians welcome the Pilgrims and they all sit down together and everybody says, 'Isn’t that cute, that’s so nice.'"

“The real underlying issue is the mythology; there’s a view that we’re this big melting pot country, or there’s a view that the Natives and the Pilgrims lived happily ever after and the Native people just evaporated into the woods or something to make way for the Pilgrims and all of the other aspects of the European invasion,” Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of United American Indians of New England, told HuffPost in regards to why it’s imperative Americans start having open and honest conversations about what Thanksgiving really means to some Americans.

“All around the country, schools continue to dress up their children in little Pilgrim and Indian costumes and the Indians welcome the Pilgrims and they all sit down together and everybody says, ‘Isn’t that cute, that’s so nice.’ That’s not at all what happened,” she said.

Get involved with the Massachusetts Center For Native American Awareness by volunteering in these different areas. Also, make sure you check out National Heritage Sites, where you can find tribal sites throughout the country for you to either make a donation to help preserve them or simply make a visit.