Today is officially designated as Native American Heritage Day. That’s right. Out of all the days in November, which also is supposed to be Native American Heritage Month, the day they designated as THE day to honor Native American heritage was Black Friday. Sure. Nobody’s thinking about anything else today.
They codified this into law not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES. H.J.Res. 62 was enacted and signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 8, 2008. The following year, the same sponsor (Hispanic Congressman Joe Baca, a California Democrat) reintroduced it (with adjusted wording?). H.J.Res. 40 was signed into law June 26, 2009. But it wasn’t finalized (as far as I can tell) till August 20, 2010, with yet more adjusted wording.
And they say Congress never gets anything done.
They really worked hard to get this specific day codified into law as Native American Heritage Day. But I discovered I’m not alone in thinking the day after Thanksgiving is hardly the best day to single out for this recognition.
Problems with Thanksgiving
Many Native Americans already have enough trouble with Thanksgiving itself. There’s been a movement afoot since 1970, to call it Native American Day of Mourning, or Native American Genocide Day, because in traditional US narratives “the focus is always on the Pilgrims.”
Although many Americans really want to dispute it, the European invasion of the so-called “New World” was an unmitigated disaster for native people, and there’s no other word for it. It was a slow-rolling, widespread, persistent, and extremely effective genocide. It was no accident. Even the Holcaust Museum calls it a holocaust. It is arguably perhaps the largest and longest in recorded human history–and unfortunately human history has a lot of genocides to compare.
Despite all of this, and despite the fact that some tribal groups indeed have gone extinct, Native American (or, in Canada, First Nations) people persist. It would be comforting to say that they are, at last, safe and fully valued today, but that would also be false. In nearly every arena, Native Americans’ opportunities for wealth, education, and optimal health care are severely crippled.
The pernicious legacy of Indian Schools
Native American cultural traditions were nearly decimated by the “Indian Schools.” These were boarding schools where authorities took people’s kidnapped children. The children often were abused for such misdeeds as speaking their own languages or telling traditional stories. They learned European religions and languages, made to dress like Europeans, and taught menial tasks.
I live very close to one former such school, the Shawnee Indian Mission, which (in part) gave so many parts of the Kansas City metro area (at least on the Kansas side) their names. It inspired the name of my home church, Old Mission United Methodist Church, and it hosts an annual fall festival that draws people from all over the area. But the full, pernicious nature of the schooling that went on there still isn’t clearly understood by the surrounding community. For many of the 40+ years I’ve lived here, I didn’t fully get it either.
Oh, and lest you think that horrifying chapter ended in 1973, think again. It’s being perpetuated, whether willfully or not, in the foster care system of today.
A challenge for all Americans
Native people still live among us. They are an important part of our nation. Yet their important cultural sites, way of life, and sacred places still undergo attack. Some have assimilated, but many others still feel ostracized, marginalized, and all-too-often erased.
But that erasure cannot–MUST NOT–stand. In a few, meaningful ways, native voices may start being heard (yes! Sharice Davids is my Congresswoman). But we need many, many more. In Congress, certainly. But also in our daily consciousness. In commerce and opportunity. In education. And in health care. It’s not just their fight. If the rest of us can ever hope to right the scales of cosmic justice, the fight for Native American heritage and equity must be our fight, too.
IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Canyon News for the Black Friday photo, to United American Indians of New England for the “Day of Mourning demonstration photo, and to my longtime friend Keith Stokes for the photo of the Shawnee Indian Mission.