Native American Heritage Month

It’s Native American Heritage Month, an annual celebration of the rich ancestry and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the United States.

During this month-long observance, we recognize the significant contributions that the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the what we now call the United States.

Keep reading for suggestions for how to honor Native culture and history this November—and throughout the year.

Origins of the Observance

The history and heritage of Native Americans goes back thousands of years. But the national celebration traces its roots to 1914, when Reverend Red Fox James rode horseback from the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana to Washington, D.C.—a journey of more than 4,000 miles that took him around nine months to complete. He undertook this grueling ride to petition President Woodrow Wilson to establish a day to honor American Indian heritage.

Red Fox James in Washington, D.C.

The following year, James went state to state to convince governors that American Indians should be given U.S. citizenship, and he presented a petition with 24 governors’ signatures to the White House in 1915.

The Celebration Evolves

At the same time, the president of the Congress of the American Indian Association called upon the nation to establish an American Indian Day, and issued such a proclamation in September 1915. Initially, that proclamation declared the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford proclaimed Native American Awareness Week, and the event has evolved since then. President George W. Bush approved the designation of November as National American Indian Heritage Month in 1990. Now called Native American Heritage Month, it has been celebrated every year since.

The First Americans

The indigenous people of what is now the United States of America are thought to have arrived here at least 15,000 years ago—long before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 to “discover the New World.”

During the European colonization that followed, Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands and many were enslaved or killed—or forced to assimilate. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 determined that Indian tribes were no longer independent nations, but instead, dependent on the federal government of the U.S.

An Effort to Restore Tribes’ Autonomy

These assimilation policies were reversed in 1934 with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act. This law restored Native Americans to the management of their land and rights—and it aimed to help American Indians re-establish their sovereignty and reduce the losses of their land.

The commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during this time felt that the traditions and culture of Native Americans were worthy of emulation. In that spirit, the act provided opportunities for the tribes to restore their own traditions—but for a number of reasons, its promise was never fully realized.

Today, there are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages, and 326 Indian reservations in the United States. These tribes have the right to form their own governments, enforce their own laws, impose taxes and more. There are also tribes that are recognized by individual states but not the federal government. American Indian and Alaska Native people represent 2.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to Indian Country Today.

Two Federally Recognized Tribes in Colorado

Here in Colorado, you’ll find two federally recognized tribes:

However, today there are around 54,000 people that identify as Native American here in our state. That’s about 1% of Colorado’s population—and they mostly live in the urban areas. The largest tribal group by origin in Colorado is the Lakota, and the fastest growing tribal group is Navajo. (But these two tribes are not federally recognized in the state). Learn more from Uncover Colorado.

Celebrate Through Education

One of the best ways you can celebrate Native American Heritage Month is to learn about the history of the first people to settle on the land that is now the US. (History.com and the Library of Congress website are great places to start.)

Take time to get educated about some of the current issues facing Native people throughout the Americas. (Indian Country Today is an independent, non-profit source of news and opinion that covers tribes and Native people throughout the Americas.) Read their article about some of the indigenous inventions that have changed how we live today—like sunscreen and mouthwash!

Go Visit

There are many incredible historic sites throughout Colorado where you can discover how Native Americans lived in the past. Taking a road trip to see one of these beautiful places that preserve our indigenous heritage is a wonderful way to learn about and honor Native American culture.

Here are a few places around the state to get you started:

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science also has a permanent exhibit on North American Indian cultures where you can travel through various regions of the US to explore and examine:

  • authentic reconstructed dwellings, including an Inuit snow house
  • a Northwest Coast clan house
  • a Navajo hogan
  • a Cheyenne tipi
  • beautifully crafted weavings, basketry, beadwork and pottery.

Along the way, you can stop to listen to stories and watch videos on the major cultural groups.

So, check out some of these places—or explore others you find on your own. There’s much we can learn from the very first inhabitants of our state.

Join Events at FRCC

At FRCC’s Westminster Campus, we’re celebrating Native American Heritage Month with several events that you won’t want to miss.

Join us November 17 for:

11:00 a.m.  |  Native Food from Tocabe Food Truck (in the parking lot)  

11:50 a.m.  Land Acknowledgement Ceremony (in the rotunda)

                        Led by Westminster Campus Vice President Tricia Johnson, EdD

Noon  Performance by Seven Falls Indian Dancers (in the rotunda)

12:30 p.m.  |  Speaker Kristina Maldonado Bad Hand, Native Artist (in the rotunda)

                        She’ll present her story as an indigenous person in the modern era and how art became a medium to express her culture.

3:00 p.m.  Speaker Chase Janis (in the Snowy Peaks room)

                        A Native Coloradan and member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, they’ll speak about the intersectionality of being an indigenous person and a member of the LGBTQIA community.

All events above will take place at FRCC-Westminster, 3645 N 112th Street.

(Use entrance 2, near the flag poles.)

Please note: College safety protocols require all visitors to wear a mask inside FRCC buildings.

Watch and Learn Online

There are also a lot of great videos online that you can watch to learn more. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian offers online recordings of some excellent student webinars to boost your knowledge of indigenous culture and issues, such as:

And from November 12-18, you can watch some of the most recent Native films through the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase. This year, the event focuses on “Native people boldly asserting themselves through language, healing, building community, and a continued relationship with the land.” Over the course of seven days, you’ll have the chance to watch 47 powerful movies from Native American filmmakers who represent 39 Native American nations.

Keep the Celebration Going

We hope these are some helpful suggestions for how you can thoughtfully honor the diverse Native American histories, traditions and cultures over the course of this month. And of course, these are just a start.

Once you start looking, you’ll find many other ways to respectfully acknowledge the contributions that Native Americans have made and continue to make. Keep learning—not just in November, but throughout the year.

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