As sure as the season brings dark mornings and cold moons, fall also offers critical opportunities for public education about American Indians. It is a time for teaching others about the inherent value of traditional Indian cultures to the fabric of America. Against a backdrop of national holidays and federal proclamations, Native peoples can contextualize their own spiritual and cultural endurance on this land.
Columbus Day, a haunting specter of colonization for Native peoples of the Americas, has passed. The ever-growing awareness of the real legacy of Columbus and the patterns of conquest he embodies in the Indian psyche are encouraging. With every Indian call for the end of parades and festivals dedicated to the heritage of the lost mariner Columbus, the discourse turns ever slightly toward celebrating the resistance and survival of Native peoples, languages and cultures.
It is important to note that children, perhaps a bit earlier with each generation, are becoming aware of the culture clashes associated with the October holiday. This is thanks in large part to grass-roots efforts by parents and educators to inject honesty and humility into lesson plans regarding that fateful 1492 journey. Local activism attracts media attention easily, and media savvy is a critical component to realizing the sea change on a national scale.
Despite hard-won gains, there is clearly much work left to be done. Scholastic Inc.'s monthly reader for elementary students, ''Let's Find Out,'' featured a cross-section of the Santa Maria to illustrate how each compartment was used during the voyage across the Atlantic (undoubtedly westward, as evidenced by the lack of Native slaves and treasures in the ship's holds). And completing the image likely seen from the Caribbean shores, the blood-red Order of Christ Cross adorned the ship's white sails. To be fair, nowhere did the reader assert that Columbus ''discovered'' the New World. It's a somewhat dubious victory, but a victory nonetheless.
(The American tradition of ''playing Indian'' is worth a mention, as Halloween can be an awkward time for children and their parents alike. Like Indian mascots that caricaturize an entire group of people for kicks, costumes that degrade tribal dress and regalia can be downright hostile. Classroom and neighborhood spaces deemed comfortable and safe seem to transform the moment a child [or adult] appears dressed as an ''Indian princess'' or ''chief.'' What is confusing for Native children may be maddening for an adult. Often the only solution to this social conundrum is to politely explain why ''Indian'' costumes are offensive, and to teach your own child about inappropriate images and usage of tribal regalia.)
November is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, a long-sought acknowledgment of the many contributions of American Indian peoples. This designation recognizes intertribal cultures and is meant to encourage public education about the heritage, history, art and traditions of AI/AN peoples. Among the first documented efforts to gain recognition for Indians was by Arthur C. Parker, a noted Seneca scholar. Parker advocated strongly for proper higher education of Indians, including an Indian university suited to developing young minds. This early commitment to broadening the canon of American education to include indigenous knowledge helped clear a path for today's emerging recognition of Native contributions.
An Oct. 31 proclamation by President Bush called for ''all Americans to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities.'' It's an appropriate measure to encourage Americans to learn by doing, to participate in activities that offer a Native point of view. Secondary schools throughout the country have seized the opportunity to ''show and tell'' a different story of Native people, separating out negative images and replacing them with meaningful experiences. When students and educators share traditional meals together, dance in a welcoming circle or sing in a Native language, a school can transcend the confines of a rigid, national academic curriculum. Meaningful incorporation of local Native knowledge can only aid the development of future parents and community leaders. It is a goal that will serve America well.
Some of the creative programs and Native studies programs at colleges and universities are oratory competitions, ancient craft making, traditional and modern musical entertainment, cooking classes, community service and lesson planning. Tribes and education centers are encouraged to share ideas with one another in personal meetings, at conferences, and in our opinion pages.
Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a time to honor the contribution of Native vets to the U.S. Armed Forces. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 168,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans. Despite being the smallest minority group in the country, AI/AN soldiers have served in disproportionately high numbers in wartime. It is estimated that 42,000 fought in World War I; about 45,000 in WWII (with as many working at home in the war industry); and more than 40,000 served in Vietnam. Hundreds fight today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lastly, we come to Thanksgiving, the jewel in the season's crown. The indigenous holiday of acknowledging and appreciating the bounty of the natural world is increasingly designated by corporations as the official start of the Christmas holiday shopping frenzy. The original Thanksgiving celebrated sustainability and humility. What better way to commemorate Native Heritage Month than to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors by celebrating this Thanksgiving as they did?
Thanksgiving is a good time to remember the origins of the traditional, all-American holiday - sharing common bonds with neighbors to maintain good relations. To honor the human principles upon which America was founded reminds fellow countrymen that Native peoples were the first societies, the first teachers, the first medicinal healers, the first farmers and the first guides to greet their ancestors in their New World. With respect and dignity, Native peoples can serve as our best ambassadors of information and should be honored to do so this month.