Throughout the month of November, we will be celebrating and honoring our Native American siblings, the beauty and vibrance of their cultures, and their inherent dignity. We also acknowledge and seek to challenge the inaccurate and incomplete history of Native Americans that is embedded in our education system and culture. The reality is that there is a deeply painful and violent history of attempted genocide, forced removal and assimilation, as well as ongoing racism, cultural appropriation and colonialism today.

As ambassadors of racial reconciliation, we are called to: 

  • Listen to marginalized voices and their lived experiences
  • Learn the real history by educating ourselves
  • Lament the pain and violence of injustice 
  • Leverage our knowledge and resources to move toward meaningful action

We invite you to join us–this month and every month–as we amplify the Native voices in our community, dig deeper and lean into the hard truths of U.S. history, and celebrate the Native American community.

We’ve compiled a variety of resources as you continue the work of bridge-building. Be sure to follow us on social media as we spend the next few weeks sharing ways to honor and celebrate the Native American community!

The History

Native American Heritage Month first began as a week-long celebration in 1986 when President Reagan proclaimed the week of November 23-30, 1986 as “American Indian Week.” Since 1995, every president has issued annual proclamations designating November as the time to celebrate the culture, accomplishments, and contributions of people who were the first inhabitants of the United States. 

Terminology 

When talking about Native groups or people, it is always best to be as specific as possible and use the terminology the citizens of the community use to describe themselves.

Indigenous refers to those peoples with pre-existing sovereignty who were living together as a community prior to contact with settler populations, most often–though not exclusively–Europeans.

Indigenous Peoples refers to a group of Indigenous peoples with a shared national identity, such as “Navajo” or “Sami,” and is the equivalent of saying “the American people.” 

Native American and American Indian refer to peoples living within what is now the United States prior to European contact. American Indian has a specific legal context because the branch of law, Federal Indian Law, uses this terminology. American Indian is also used by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget through the U.S. Census Bureau. We only use the term “Indian” in this section due to government titles. At Be the Bridge, we use the term Native American or Native. The descriptor “Indian” is not to be used to describe our Native relatives nor should it be used outside of the Native community.

European Contact vs. “Discovery” The issue with the word “discovery” is that, obviously, Indigenous Peoples have populated the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years (National Museum of the American Indian). Words matter, and using the term “contact” when referring to the European arrival on Native lands reframes the history in a more accurate light.

Federal recognition is the legal acknowledgement of the sovereign and separate political status of Nations by the U.S. Federal government. There are 574 federally recognized Nations in the United States. Approximately 229 of these ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse Nations are located in Alaska; the other federally recognized Nations are located in 35 other states. There are also state recognized Nations located throughout the United States (NCAI). It is also important to note there are many other Native American Nations pursuing federal recognition.

Tribal Sovereignty is the ability of tribal groups to assert independent nationhood with the right to govern, protect and enhance the health, safety and welfare of tribal citizens within tribal territory (NCAI).

A treaty is a contract between tribal governments and the U.S. federal government. Before treaties come into effect, they must be ratified by the Senate. 370 treaties were ratified by the U.S. Senate from 1776 to 1871, and 45 were negotiated but never ratified. In 1871, the United States ceased treaty-making with tribal groups (History.com).

Learn About  the Issues

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls (MMIW, MMIWG)

MMIW is a movement that advocates for the end of violence against Native women–who experience higher rates of violence than other groups. The movement also seeks to draw attention to the high rates of disappearances and murders of Native people, particularly women and girls. According to a 2018 report from the NCAI Policy Research Center:

  • More than 4 in 5 Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime
  • More than half of Native women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime
  • Native women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average
Boarding Schools

Boarding schools were part of a long history of the attempted physical and cultural genocide of Native Americans. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act forced Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi to make room for Western expansion. But a few decades later, the U.S. was running out of places to relocate the country’s original inhabitants. As a result, boarding schools were created to force Native children to assimilate into white American society under the triggering belief of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” (Civil War Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Industrial School). Opened in 1879 in Pennsylvania, the Carlisle Industrial School was the first government-run boarding school for Native Americans. More than 10,000 Native American children would attend Carlisle from 1879 to 1918. Students were forced to cut their hair, change their names, stop speaking their Native languages, convert to Christianity and endure corporal punishment, solitary confinement, neglect and abuse. This approach would ultimately become the model for 26 industrial schools and was an influence on hundreds of boarding schools focused on the slow genocide of Native American children. Many students never returned home because of disease, work accidents or violence, and they were buried in unmarked graves–which are still being found today.

Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

The ICWA was enacted in 1978 in response to a crisis affecting Native American and Alaska Native children and families. Studies revealed that large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. Research found that 25% to 35% of all Native children were being removed. Of these, 85% were placed outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available. Congressional testimony documented the devastating impact this was having upon Native children and families. The intent of Congress under ICWA was to “protect the best interests of the children and to promote the stability and security of Native American families.” (NICWA.org)

Protecting Tribal Natural Resources

The political and economic self-determination and self-sufficiency of most tribal groups depend on maintaining their land and natural resources. Major resource protection includes land rights, water rights, hunting, fishing and gathering rights, and environmental protection (Native American Rights Fund).

Sports & School Mascots

Native Americans are people, not mascots. Mascots perpetuate stereotypes and further reinforce misguided thinking about Native peoples and cultures. Still, nearly 2,000 teams across the country continue to use Native themed mascots. Learn more from these resources:
Mascots, Myths, Monuments, and Memory Symposium
NCAI Campaign to End Harmful “Indian” Mascots
Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports & the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots
For Native Americans, the Fight Against Mascots is Much Bigger than Sports

Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving is often portrayed as a friendly harvest festival where Pilgrims and generic, nameless ‘Indians’ came together to eat and give thanks. In reality, the assembly of the Wampanoag peoples (a Native nation based in Massachusetts) and the English settlers in 1621 was about political alliances and diplomacy. The Wampanoag peoples shared their land, food, and knowledge of the environment with the English–without which the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving. But the cooperation was short lived, as the English continued to attack and encroach upon Wampanoag lands despite their agreements. Native perspectives are especially important to include when teaching the history of the First Thanksgiving. Giving thanks is a longstanding and central tradition among most Native groups that is still practiced today (Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving).

Resources

Podcasts

Red Justice PodcastThe mission of this podcast is to bring awareness to the many cases of missing and murdered indigenous people in North America, and the way we are erased in American media.

This LandSeason 1: The Supreme Court makes a decision that will determine the future of five tribes and nearly half the land in Oklahoma, and it all starts with a murder on the side of the road in 1999. Season 2: How a string of custody battles over Native children became a federal lawsuit that threatens everything from tribal sovereignty to civil rights.

Documentaries

PBS: Native AmericaThe four part series reaches back 15,000 years to reveal massive cities aligned to the stars, unique systems of science and spirituality, and 100 million people connected by social networks spanning two continents.

DawnlandA story of stolen children and cultural survival: Inside the first truth and reconciliation commission for Native Americans.

For Kids & Students

Molly of Denali
Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way
Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth

Additional Resources

Native Land Digital – Learn about whose land you are on
Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment
Native Cinema Showcase – An annual celebration of the best in Native film
Young, Black Native activists say it’s time to appreciate Indigenous diversity
In 1868, Two Nations Made a Treaty, the U.S. Broke It and Plains Indian Tribes are Still Seeking Justice 

Our mission at Be the Bridge is to empower people and culture toward racial healing, racial equity and racial reconciliation. One way we do this is by celebrating various ethnic and cultural heritage months! But even in our best attempts, the scope of what we can cover nationally and globally is limited. We are committed to centering initiatives that align with our core values, while recognizing key seasons that intersect with our work when we can. We welcome all bridge-builders to address these layers and intricacies in their respective communities.