Native American Heritage Month: A Primer

November is Native American Heritage Month. I have been celebrating this month since 2003, when I first learned of it. Back then, I was an undergraduate at Stetson University doing research on indigenous justice. I was part of university-wide initiatives to read books, watch films, and bring in speakers for the celebration.

Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since then. That means I typically repeat the same things year after year.

I initially got into indigenous justice because my daughter is Choctaw and, in Kindergarten, for Thanksgiving, they learned about Native Americans. My daughter came home and told me that she didn’t want to be Indian anymore because “they aren’t smart and never did anything good.”

I will never forget those words.

No parent wants to hear their child say such a thing. I determined then and there to do research and engage in activism to make the world better for my daughter and kids like her. So, even though I often have to repeat myself on these things, I rarely mind doing it because, even if change is slow, it does happen and, when it does, it’s worth it. Here’s four points I say almost every year:

  1. Native Americans are different than other racial minorities. Most of them are citizens of their tribe and citizens of the United States. Being a citizen of a tribe means one can participate in tribal affairs, like voting in tribal elections.
  2. Tribal nations are real nations. They really are. If you tend to think of tribes as being different or a lesser nation than the United States, that’s probably colonialism at work. Native Americans have been victims of colonialism for a very long time at the hand of the United States. I think the end goal of colonialism is the total obliteration of the indigenous population by whatever means necessary. Currently, tribes advocate tribal sovereignty, whereby they act in a nation-to-nation relationship with the United States and can run their own affairs.
  3. Native Americans are individuals. Be aware of stereotypes on Native Americans. Each Native person is a unique individual their his or her own story. Remember that. If you would like to unlearn Native American stereotypes, here’s a good book on the topic.
  4. Treaties are still in effect. Treaties are not mere historical documents. Most Native American treaties are ratified, which means they are “the supreme law of the land.” All treaties have been broken by the United States, but that doesn’t make them ineffective. In fact, recently a treaty was used by the Supreme Court to re-establish a reservation in Oklahoma.

Learn about Native Americans this month and fight for justice for them.

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