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Native American Heritage Month: Reconciling the Contentious History of a Nation

A column by Dina Gilio-Whitaker about Native American Heritage Month.

The Background and Context of Native American Heritage Month

The Bureau of Indian Affairs website chronicles the history leading up to the establishment of Native American Heritage Month, connecting it to the early 1900’s and the efforts of Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker, a Seneca Indian (and great-nephew of General Ely S. Parker who had served as Secretary to Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War), who was the first to advocate for a date to be set aside to honor Native people. Like his uncle before him, Parker was a staunch supporter of Indian citizenship at a time when the Dawes Act mandate of forced assimilation had a stranglehold on Indian country.

Citizenship was a tool of assimilation and during the Dawes years it was a tool for alienating Indians from their lands. Under the Dawes Act, allotments were held in federal trust for 25 years, during which time they were prohibited from sale. In 1906 the Burke Act amended the Dawes Act by lifting the 25-year restriction to those deemed "competent and capable of managing his own or her own affairs" and has "adopted the habits of civilized life." Competency was associated with European ancestry (meaning the more white ancestry one had the more competent they were considered), determined by competency commissions, whether requested or not. After the lifting of the restriction, lands could be sold and citizenship was conferred. The granting of citizenship took the form of an elaborate ritual in which Indians publicly rejected their Indian identities for their American citizenship. During the Dawes years, as Vine Deloria put it in his book American Indians, American Justice, “citizenship, which is supposed to be a personal right of the individual, was really a function of the status of whatever real estate the Indian might possess."

It is no coincidence that the Dawes years resulted in the loss of two-thirds of all Indian treaty lands in what has been called the biggest land grab in American history, and it was ironically against this backdrop that Parker and others were advocating for a special day to honor American Indians. Throughout the 20th century official holidays dedicated to Indians were limited to a patchwork of state observances until 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed a joint resolution proclaiming November as Native American Heritage Month.

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Performances of Nationalism

That Native American Heritage Month is commemorated in November seems natural, given its proximity to America's quintessential creation myths, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. Two years after Native American Heritage Month was created, America celebrated the 500 year anniversary of Columbus's landing amid vociferous protests from Native Americans, something President Bush obviously anticipated given the fact that on December 4, 1991, he signed a proclamation declaring 1992 as the Year of the American Indian. The early 199os were a boon for indigenous peoples on a global scale as well, with the United Nations declaration of 1993 as Year of the World’s Indigenous People, and its Decade of Indigenous Peoples from 1995 to 2004.

With all this celebrating and commemorating going on, it would seem that all is well between indigenous peoples and their dominant countries. But here in the U.S., as in other countries, we know better. As Native people we are still fighting to protect our lands, still calling out the lies of the Columbus and Thanksgiving myths, still battling a rigged legal system with its doctrines of discovery and plenary power, still picking up the pieces of our fractured souls, broken by generations of trauma inflicted by boarding schools and profound loss. We should recognize that national commemorations serve a larger purpose beyond merely recognizing the existence of a group of people or a phenomenon. Scholars who study nationalism say that the nation is constituted not just by whatever legal documents that happen to create it (like a Constitution) but through “performances” of national culture. The singing of national anthems, the waving of national flags at parades, the effervescence generated by sporting events, even the sharing of grief due to tragedy are demonstrations of the emotional glue that binds people together in a sense of collective belonging we call a “nation.” National holidays and proclamations are thus particularly potent modes of performing national culture among people who may share little else in common, especially compared to indigenous peoples’ deeply rooted kinship networks and millennia-long connections to place. More to the point, though, national holidays and proclamations reinforce American citizenship and identity, and for Native Americans that translates to reinforcing our assimilation.

The performance of national culture is in essence the manufacture of common bonds where they may not otherwise exist, and relies on a strong emotional appeal. But there is a fundamental tension between the feel-good public face of national celebrations meant to honor Native people and on-the- ground realities of our everyday lives. They can too easily send a message that justice and balance have been achieved, and they are by their very nature reminders of the domination Native people have been subjected to without their consent. While it’s true that we’ve come a long way from the boarding school days of forced assimilation a hundred years ago, or even the termination days of a generation ago, we have a long way to go before anything close to complete justice is realized (if such a thing is even possible). In the meantime, Native American Heritage Month is an open door to continue telling our stories even when they make Americans squirm in discomfort as they are forced to come to terms with a past that was, contrary to the national mythology, so often less than honorable.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a Native American educator and freelance writer specializing in Native American culture, both current and historical.