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Baca: A day to honor Native Americans

This Friday, Nov. 27, we celebrate the second national Native American Heritage Day, to honor the original native residents of this great land of ours.

American families gather together on the fourth Thursday of every November to celebrate Thanksgiving in remembrance of a feast hosted by the Wampanoag Native Americans for the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621. While we always remember the feast of Thanksgiving, we seldom pay homage to the Wampanoag hosts or recount what happened to them afterward.

By the time the Jamestown colony was founded in Virginia in 1607, the most accurate estimates are there were substantially more than 30 million Native Americans thriving in numerous tribes and cultures from the North American shores of Alaska to the tip of Cape Horn in South America. Unfortunately, the treatment of Native Americans over the next 300 years is one of the darkest chapters in American history.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that America began to right many of the wrongs committed against our land’s original inhabitants, and the first proposals were made for a day to honor Native Americans. Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, rode horseback from state to state in 1914 to gain support for a day of tribute. In 1915, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a member of the Seneca Tribe, persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to designate a day of recognition for Native Americans.

New York became the first state to observe an American Indian Day in 1916 and many other states have followed along through the years and designated a day to honor Native Americans. Congress granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans in 1924.

As a California state assemblyman in 1998, I introduced legislation which established the fourth Friday of September as Native American Day [www /] in California. Last year, Congress passed legislation I introduced to establish a national Native American Heritage Day for 2008. This year, I again introduced legislation, H. J. Res. 40, to establish a Native American Heritage Day in 2009. I am proud to say that this bill passed both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Obama this summer.

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The bill encourages all Americans to observe, through appropriate ceremonies and activities, the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. It also encourages public elementary and secondary schools to enhance student understanding of Native Americans by providing classroom instruction focusing on their history and achievements.

In conjunction with Native American Heritage Day, President Obama issued a presidential proclamation marking November 2009 as National Native American Heritage Month, and calling for all Americans to recognize Friday, Nov. 27 as Native American Heritage Day. The president also hosted the first ever Tribal Leaders Summit at the White House earlier this month.

Throughout history Native Americans have made significant contributions to our nation, our society, and our culture. The Constitutional separation of powers of our government was based on the structure of the Iroquois Nation. As an ambassador of peace, Sacajawea guided Lewis and Clark on their exploration across the west to the Pacific coast.

Hopi, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Winnebago, Seminole, Navajo and Cherokee used their languages as secret codes to protect American forces in several wars. Navajo code talkers created and memorized a code based on the Navajo language which helped the Marines win the Pacific campaign in World War II.

Native Americans continue to live according to their own traditions and cultures and are making greater contributions than ever before. More than 30 tribal colleges across the country are educating future accountants, doctors, lawyers, health care workers, educators, policymakers and political leaders.

Amid the Thanksgiving dinners, football, and shopping this week, let’s take some time to recognize Native American Heritage Day. We must never take for granted the very first inhabitants of this continent – Native Americans, and their many contributions that have greatly enriched the United States.

Rep. Joe Baca represents the 43rd U.S. Congressional District of California. He is the primary sponsor of the bill which established Native American Heritage Day 2009.