Trump’s effort to rebrand Native American Heritage Month does not and will not deter Indigenous movements

Pictured: Andrew Bentley, NDN Collective Director of Finance, and Kim Pate, NDN Collective Vice President.(Photo: NDN Collective)

Crystal Echo Hawk

Native American history is American history say Crystal Echo Hawk and Nick Tilsen

Crystal Echo Hawk and Nick Tilsen

For nearly three decades, the month of November has been recognized as Native American Heritage Month. Bipartisan support through Presidential Proclamations and law formally recognized and honored the contributions of Native and Indigenous peoples throughout the month. This year, however, the 45th President of the United States attempted to rebrand the month entirely, prioritizing an inaugural proclamation of November as “National American History and Founders Month.” While it is not certain why this decision was made, recent reporting on this inaugural proclamation found it to be a priority of prominent Republican donors. The White House retroactively published a proclamation about Native American History Month on November 5th, but the message was heard loud and clear throughout Indian Country: This administration is trying to erase us.

In an era of alarming displays of support and sympathy for white nationalism coded as patriotism, we recognize that the decision to prioritize the celebration of “founders” by the President, with a purposeful exclusion of Native communities, is a direct effort to diminish both tribal sovereignty and growing social movements for justice, equity, and inclusion. This action was an attempt to further diminish Indigenous Peoples in our own land and an attempt to erase us from discussions about this country’s origins.

While the highest levels of government have and continue to be both active and complicit in the attempted erasure of our people, they are not alone. Erasure is institutionalized by other sectors in society, including the K-12 public education system, pop culture, and the media. Formally recognized holidays and proclamations like Native American Heritage Month are key to addressing this erasure, and correcting historical and institutionalized narratives that have privileged white colonial history while purposely excluding the history of those who have been most disenfranchised: Indigenous, Black, and other people of color.

It is no surprise to Native people that a president who uses Native-specific racial slurs to talk about his political opponents, supports the expansion of pipelines through tribal lands despite opposition by tribal leaders, and hijacks celebrations of Native veterans, has disrespected us yet again. There has been a consistent pattern of disregard for the strength and well-being of Native communities, most prominently shown through proposed cuts to funding, and even elimination of Native education programs.

To be sure, Indian Country has long-standing allies from both sides of the aisle who have worked side-by-side with tribal communities to right some wrongs perpetrated by the government. Both Republican and Democratic elected officials have introduced legislation that supports Native communities, advocated for full funding of Indian education and health services, held agencies accountable to their missions of serving Native communities, and worked with elected officials to ensure they consult with tribal leaders. Support for Tribal Nations and Native people can and should be a collective effort of all those in government, regardless of political affiliation. 

The acknowledgement and celebration of Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity for America to reckon with its past, to heal long-standing historical wounds, to build national self-awareness, and fully realize what it means to be a nation built on justice and equity for all people. This should be a priority to those in the highest levels of leadership.

Pictured: Indigenous people gather outside of U.S. Bank stadium in Minneapolis in protest of the visiting Washington Football team. October 24, 2019.
Pictured: Indigenous people gather outside of U.S. Bank stadium in Minneapolis in protest of the visiting Washington Football team. October 24, 2019.(Photo: Sarah Manning)

Despite this latest slight to Indian Country by this Administration, Native and Indigenous movements for justice and visibility are mobilizing in unprecedented ways. Looking back to the month of October, wherein dozens of Indigenous Peoples’ Day declarations were made on local and state levels, we recognize the growing power of Indigenous organizing for visibility and self-determination. Together, we are boldly asserting ourselves. We are reclaiming our narratives, restoring the visibility of our Nations, our histories, and our accomplishments.

IllumiNative was founded to combat the erasure of Native peoples, to change the narrative, and illuminate what it means to be Native American in today’s contemporary society. We celebrate Native peoples this month and every month by amplifying Native artists, Native issues, voices for change, and by providing significant, sound research to build the foundation of truth for all Native peoples in this country.

Similarly, the NDN Collective was founded to build the collective power of Indigenous people through movement-building, decolonization and self-determination. Asserting ourselves as the original inhabitants of this land is not just critical for our own collective well-being, healing and self-determination as Indigenous people, but it’s part of a much broader movement for justice and equity for all people and the planet. We recognize that as human beings upon one shared Earth, we are bound by natural laws of interdependence. Therefore, we must take every opportunity to stand up to inequality and create equitable solutions.

As organizations, we share a commitment to fighting erasure. As Native people, we understand how critical this fight is to our future. Indigenous Peoples are an essential part of the historical and cultural fabric that makes up this nation. We remain and persevere as active participants of the present, and we will continue to be co-creators of the future. On a global scale, the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous Peoples and Nations are also essential to solving the most pressing problems facing this country and the world. Indigenous communities are leading the fight to end climate change and ensuring access to clean water and air. It is imperative that we build a future and country that is grounded in truth, solidarity, justice and equity. A country that works for and includes all. A country where Indigenous Peoples, as the original people of this land, are valued, respected and recognized.

Native American History Is American History, #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth
Native American History Is American History, #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth.(Image: NDN Collective)

Some may call the celebration of Native American Heritage Month merely a symbolic gesture. But symbols and the movements behind them matter. Accurate representation and the movement for narrative change are catalysts for change. This is why we will continue fighting for visibility and the restoration of celebrations like this one. This month, we will continue to honor and recognize the countless displays of Native and Indigenous magnificence and celebrate over 600 years of resilience. We will continue to build within our communities, lift up our stories, and work with allies to reshape an American narrative that truly honors the first people of this land. Together, we can create a vibrant future for this country that exemplifies the best in all of us and defeats the hate that threatens to surround us today.

For Native American Heritage Month, we invite Indian Country and our allies to join us as we remind America that Native American history is American history. To participate in our campaign, download this image, take a selfie holding up the message, and post your photo using the hashtag #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth.

Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee is the Founder and CEO of IllumiNative.

Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, is the President and CEO of NDN Collective.

About IllumiNative

IllumiNative is a Native-led nonprofit, launched to increase the visibility of Native peoples in American society by changing the national narrative. IllumiNative challenges negative narratives, stories, and stereotypes about Native peoples. We provide tools for Native advocates and allies including youth, community and tribal leaders, activists, and professionals across critical sectors — to develop and advocate for accurate and contemporary representations and voices of Native peoples.

About NDN Collective

NDN Collective is a national organization dedicated to building the collective power of Indigenous Peoples, communities, and Nations to exercise our inherent right to self-determination. Through a holistic approach to infrastructure, funding, advocacy, movement building, and philanthropy we are fostering a world of justice and equity for all people and the planet.

Indian Country Today - small phone logo
(Image: Indian Country Today)
Comments (5)
No. 1-5

Thank you for this beautiful article. I am standing with you and for the native nations. My heart truly goes out to you and the injustices and prejudices and ignorance of the uneducated people who live in this country. But I believe things are changing for the better. God holds the future. God Bless you all.


I'm an AMERICAN, never have used the hyphen because all it does is pigeon hole ones mind. Success come from open minds not crutches.


I stand with you and the Great Grandmother that I was taught by my father to be Native American. There are no records to prove this but physical characteristics and family history is good enough for Me. I have read so much about trials,deception,hardship that it hurts my heart. This man that has so much power at this time won't last forever but The history of the Indigenous People will. Thank you for all your hard work. Virginia Della Hudson-Harrison

Martin in Boulder
Martin in Boulder

Articulate Russell Means PhD (Lakota) liked the phrase American Indian for 2 reasons: 1) it is what's on all the contracts, also 2) one is Native American if they were born in America (empirical evidence is easily at hand). So, according to a man who earned much more academic wallpaper than I did, myself and Captain James Tiberius Kirk are both Native American, because we were both born in Iowa.

If you were to say that were were "Borne of The Living God", or "The Kingdom of The Father is within you/me", you can't go wrong with that basic truth, eh? Or try this derivative, "Father & Gaia come together in me." This detail can't be proven wrong either.

Solutrians (France) were here (S. Carolina) before the Clovis people by more than 7 thousand years. This was when Canada was covered by at least 1 mile of ice, so the phrase "First Americans" is not accurate for the Canadians, either. Research well before you claim "first peoples". (At least Canada say 'first nations, and not "first peoples"). (Un-defined, non-Clovis artifacts were found in Texas pre-dating Clovis by 2K yrs.)

If your first definition of self is that "The Kingdom of The Father is within you", you will rise & soar above any trivial, lesser, cultural/racial prejudiced, lower-thinking, separating, nitwit thoughts & emotions about your very existence.

And certainly do NOT be fooled with racial/cultural biases. For example, it was Keokuk's second treason to the Sauk that inspired Black (Sparrow) Hawk & 1600 Sauk to cross back over the Mississippi and seek to re-claim Saukenuk (Rock Island, IL). If one is to take down any statue in this land, go to Keokuk Iowa and take down that statue; change that insulting name of the town. At least he shared the money with the tribe. His son Moses Keokuk sold some of their land in Iowa and kept the money for himself. Martin in Boulder


This so called president is nothing but an ignorant psychopath with no empathy for anyone but himself. In fact, I'm waiting for him to turn on his own family, and blame them for his many crimes. No doubt, he will say Ivanka advised him to make this declaration. He's a compulsive liar, a narcisist, a fool, who refuses to listen to scientists who tell him humans are the cause of too rapid climate change and what must be done to alleviate it, he ignores, or just plain doesn't know his history. I wish someone would take away his cell phone, not let him near a computer or tablet, and put a muzzle on him. At least then, we wouldn't have to listen to his daily stupidity!