Native American Heritage Month: Focusing on the wrong history

I saw a tweet the other day that has stuck in my mind and been bugging me since. It read along the lines of “We know the names of the boats Christopher Columbus sailed in on better than the names of the tribes’ lands we live on.”

The education system in our country did a poor job educating generations about the indigenous people native to what we now know as the United States of America. Much of history is distorted, particularly the lens in which we see Christopher Columbus.

Over the past few years, I have become more and more aware of the opinions of those around me and what it tells me about who they are. One of the opinions I have never understood was the aggravation that came from no longer celebrating Columbus day, at least, not under the name of Columbus.

Who would want to celebrate a man that induced genocide onto new lands in desperate attempts to gain control? History failed to explain that on those three ships Columbus sailed in on, death was arriving to the indigenous people of the Americas.

It was not until a college level history class, in which I read the journals of Bishop Bartolomeo de las Casas, that I truly grasped how horrid the Spanish behaved while they conquered. They destroyed beautiful lands in search of material goods. They raped the women and enslaved the men. They slaughtered people, tortured babies, and introduced more colonizers to the Americas.

While his reign of terror was focused more so within Central America, it still reflects the treatment of indigenous people that was mimicked by Americans attempting to “manifest destiny.” People were forced from their lands, resources were depleted, and assimilation was a requirement.

Yet, these horrible images are not the first thing that comes to mind when someone pictures an indigenous person. Rather than see the oppression placed upon these tribes, people see the false promise of peace of Native Americans and pilgrims on Thanksgiving or the ruthless savages of the Wild West.

Most people celebrate Thanksgiving with no knowledge of the history that occurred in the years after this peaceful meal.

Struggle over land claims between the Puritans and Native Americans led to countless confrontations and wars, but there is a point when a war goes too far. The genocide of Native people in America is the most widely ignored aspect of American history.

This ignorance makes learning about Native American Heritage all the more important. The media has morphed the image of indigenous people into nothing short of a carefully constructed lie to conceal the horrible past inflicted upon them. But that is not how a dark history should be handled.

Sacagawea is best known for her role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Just two months after giving birth, her and her child joined the group as an indisputable asset and symbol of peace – war parties did not allow women or children to travel with them.
She was originally brought along thanks to her linguistic knowledge, but her knowledge on the land served useful in finding edible and
medicinal roots, plants, and berries. When one of the teams boats capsized it was Sacagawea that saved important materials and tools.
When the expedition concluded, she was not paid for any of the work she had done.

If anything, it should be at the forefront of conversation. People should be knowledgeable on the origin of this land they call home and how sacred it was to the indigenous people that had it stripped away from them. It is important to know all this to prevent it from happening again.

Classrooms should be teaching about important figures within United States history, like they would for African American Heritage Month or Women’s History Month. Students should be educated beyond the brief mentions of Sitting Bull and Sacagawea.

Modern Native people should be taught with equally high regard. Like Wilma Mankiller, who was named the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985. Her achievements are what continue to enrich the culture of indigenous people.

November was named Native American Heritage Month back in 1990 by George H. W. Bush and has been proclaimed, under various differentiations, each year since 1994. Other variations of the month have been decreed under “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month” and “American Indian Heritage Month.”

This includes President Donald J. Trump’s proclamation of November 2020 being Native American Heritage Month. Where he called “upon all Americans to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities and to celebrate November 27, 2020, as Native American Heritage Day.”

The National Congress of American Indians uses this month as “a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people,” with the ultimate goal of raising awareness to the historical and present-day challenges Native people face.

William L. “Willie” Hensley (born June 17, 1941), Also known by his Iñupiaq name Iġġiaġruk, William Hensley is known for his work regarding Native Alaskan land rights. Growing up he lived along the Noatak River delta with no electricity or running water. In order to survive the harsh nine months of Alaskan winters, his family would hunt and fish to survive.
Hensley played a critical role in the creation of the one of the largest land claims for native people in U.S. history. Hensley sereved a term on the Alaska House of Representatives and a four-year term in the Alaska Senate.
He has been a founder for countless organizations associated with protecting the rights of Alaskan natives such as the Alaskan Federation of Natives and the Northwest Alaskan Natives Association.

6.9 million people make up the Native American and Alaska Native population within the United States. The United States Census Bureau has recognized 324 reservations that house at least half of the 574 unique tribes recognized by and eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

These reservations were originally drafted back in 1830 as part of the Indian Removal Act. Today, they have a living standard comparable to that of a developing country, with issues in infant mortality, low life expectancy, poor nutrition, poverty, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Living conditions such as those, particularly with irregular addressing and insufficient mail delivery makes it even harder to advocate for change. Voting as an indigenous person in America is a right that is constantly in danger. Donating to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) works to actively protect their most basic civil right.

A big epidemic within the Native community is the missing and murdered indigenous women that are reported, but action from law enforcement can take an unnecessary amount of days. It should not have to be National Native American Heritage Month for people to donate, because the basic human rights of Native people are still very much in danger.

The pandemic is a huge burden on indigenous people as well. According to First Nations Development Institute, Native Americans constitute a seriously at-risk population: 13 percent of Native American homes lack safe drinking water and 16 percent of homes in tribal areas are overcrowded and multigenerational. This makes social distancing virtually impossible and food shortages and food deserts make healthy, fresh food less accessible.

Susan La Flesche, the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Her decision to become a physician occured after she saw a white doctor refuse to treat a Native American woman. La Flesche worked primarily on the Ohama reservation, where she treated 1,300 patients.
In 1894, she left Ohama to open a private practice. However, her work with Ohama wasn’t done. She led a delegation to Washting D.C., advocating that the Native people living there should be allowed to control their land. Thanks to her, they were granted that right.

One of the most important ways to help Native people is simply by staying informed and making an active effort to help support the lives of indigenous people within America. Research many of the issues, such as COVID-19’s impact, and act accordingly.

Spare a few bucks to send to various Native charities at least once a month. Otherwise, support indigenous businesses. Learn what companies have indigenous roots and integrate them into becoming a norm within your shopping sprees.

However, not all assistance has to be monetary. Learning about the rich culture that has lasted throughout some of the lowest points in American history helps keep that very same culture alive.

“Native Land” and “Whose Land” are both apps available for download on iPhones. They illustrate indigenous territories and languages that might have and still do exist in the world around us. What makes this particularly interesting is how the apps can inform you about the land you’re currently standing on.

It’s a small introduction into a culture that has been ignored for too long. Native people throughout history have persevered through the toughest of environments and deserve to be celebrated and supported. Take time out of your November to make an active effort in supporting indigenous people. Then, make it a habit that extends well beyond Native American Heritage month.