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Stevens and Hall: National holiday sought to honor Native American contributions to the U.S.

As the first Americans, Native Americans have a proud story of perseverance and achievement. We have an important place both in the history of the United States and in the governmental framework of the Nation. It is time that the United States designated a national holiday to honor Native Americans and our contributions to America. To honor our Indian nations, our grandfathers and grandmothers, and the contributions of Native American people from yesterday and today, we call upon Congress and the President to designate the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day.

Before Columbus, our Indian nations had made remarkable artistic, scientific, political and cultural achievements. For example, in the 1400s, Cahokia, the Native American city that was located near present-day St. Louis, was larger than London was in its day. Through generations of agriculture, Native American peoples developed staple crops, including corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, that make up 60 percent of the food found on tables throughout the world today. Our Indian nations were among the first to recognize the status of women as political leaders, and the Founding Fathers came to the Six Nations Confederacy in New York to learn about our unique system of democratic confederacy, with our system of divided powers and checks and balances. They used the lessons they learned there in framing the Constitution of the United States.

In times of need, our Native American people were there to teach essential skills to the newcomers from Europe and later, the leaders of the United States. The Thanksgiving story tells of Squanto and Massasoit who shared the bounty of their lands with the Pilgrims to help them survive their first difficult years. The story of the American Revolution reflects an important alliance with Indian nations. George Washington and his starving troops at Valley Forge may not have survived the harsh winter were it not for the Oneida Nation who brought them food and essential supplies. The story of Lewis and Clark, who explored the West, is also the story of Sakakawea, the young Indian woman, who served as their ambassador of peace and friendship to the Indian nations. The story of Ulysses Grant and the Civil War is also the story of his aide, Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian attorney who made history by writing the terms of the final Confederate surrender. The story of the World Wars is also the story of the code talkers from the Navajo Nation and other Indian nations. And, the story of Iwo Jima is also the story of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian soldier, who helped raise the United States flag on Mt. Suribachi. Last spring, Native Americans and all Americans honored Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian soldier and the first American woman who died in combat defending the United States. Last week, we honored Sheldon Hawk Eagle, a Cheyenne River Sioux soldier, who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Our Native American story of friendship and aid to our great nation has been repeated down to the present, as our Native American sons and daughters continue to join the United States military to defend our nation at the highest per-capita rate of any group in America's history.

There is also the story of our long struggle to maintain our original right to self-government and our unique culture and traditions in the face of adversity and forced assimilation. There were as many as 20 million Native Americans in North America when Columbus landed, yet at the dawn of the 20th century, only 250,000 of our people had survived the genocide, plagues of small pox and cholera, forced relocation, and the scourge of warfare as the United States hungered for our lands. Yet, with the help of our patriot chiefs, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Red Jacket, Osceola, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Four Bears, and others, we survived. And, today our Native American peoples continue to live according to our traditions and culture. Today, our Indian nations continue to strive for a better life for our people through our original, inherent right to self-government as partners in the federal family of governments.

Thanksgiving should be about giving thanks, but too often the history of Native Americans is reduced to a short story about a feast with the pilgrims. We believe that the President, the Congress, and the American people should honor ALL that Native Americans have done to shape the fabric of the United States. The right way to do that is to designate a day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, as Native American Heritage Day to honor Native American contributions - past and present - to the life of the nation.

Ernie Stevens Jr., a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, is the chairman and spokesman of the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C. His work involves protecting and enhancing the sovereignty of Indian Nations and their right to conduct gaming as a means for economic development.

Tex Hall is the president of the National Congress of American Indians. He was re-elected to serve a second two-year term during NCAI's 60th Annual Convention held in November in Albuquerque, N.M. Hall is also the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in Fort Berthold, North Dakota.

For more information, contact Carla J. Nicholas, director of Public Relations at (202) 546-7711.

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