At First Nations, we always put Native communities first – every day and with every opportunity. But for many people outside Indian Country, thoughts about Native Americans and Native communities can be fleeting, and come to the forefront only on certain occasions. For many, those occasions happen in November when attention turns to Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving. Here, we offer four reasons to rethink these annual celebrations to truly make a difference for Native Americans.
Celebrate year-round. In 1990, President George Bush declared the month of November as Native American Indian Heritage Month, which later became Native American Heritage Month. The month is designed to provide a platform for Native people to share their culture and traditions and for non-Native people to learn about Native American history and rights in order to improve awareness. The month builds on the initial proclamation of American Indian Week, and while a month is longer than a week, we have to ask: Why just November? At First Nations, we believe any time of the year is the appropriate time to celebrate the contributions of American Indians.
Remember the roots of Thanksgiving. Another way to “rethink” at this time of year is to grasp a greater understanding of Thanksgiving. The myth of Thanksgiving suggests that Native people and pilgrims came together to celebrate the survival of the fragile Plymouth colony. In reality, there was indeed a “First Thanksgiving” in 1621, but Native people were not invited. Instead, Wampanoag soldiers showed up on their own after hearing celebratory gunshots and screams from pilgrim settlements. The Wampanoag soldiers thought the pilgrims were under attack and arrived as part of a diplomatic treaty of mutual defense between the Wampanoag nation and pilgrims. Ultimately, it wasn’t until after the formation of the United States that narratives of a harmonious celebration between pilgrims and Wampanoag were created to justify westward expansion and “manifest destiny.” Our purpose here is not to erase Thanksgiving as a celebration of gratitude and family, but to ensure people know and honor the real story of how this holiday came to be.
Help reclaim Native truth. In November and all year, another way to make a difference for Native communities is to recognize the myths and misconceptions surrounding Native Americans and take active steps to gain a more accurate understanding and share that truth with others. In Changing the Narrative About Native Americans, A Guide for Allies, part of First Nations’ 2016 groundbreaking research Reclaiming Native Truth, we wrote: What most people in this country know — or think they know — about Native Americans is rooted in myths, stereotypes and half-truths. Information they have received since birth from movies, television, the media and school lessons has created a false narrative (or commonly accepted story) about historic and contemporary Native Americans and tribes. From a young age, most people in the United States have been immersed in the current dominant narrative about Native peoples. It is a largely false and deficit-based narrative, meaning it focuses on challenges and weaknesses — real, assumed or exaggerated — rather than being based on strengths and opportunities. These narratives are almost always created by non-Native people, often with the intention to oppress Native nations, peoples and cultures.
By recognizing these existing narratives, people can enact strategies to shift these beliefs in everything from how stories are told and how people are portrayed, to how children are taught and how decision-makers are informed. The result: Greater social justice and increased collaboration with Native American peoples in all aspects of society.
Invest in Native communities. Finally, a great way to make a difference this season is to learn about and support the amazing work that’s taking place throughout Indian Country when it comes to Native food sovereignty, language preservation, youth programs, and community building and asset building. Our grantee directory details hundreds of grassroots Native-led initiatives across the U.S. that First Nations has invested in. You can support these organizations directly, or support First Nations overall and designate your gift to our Native Youth & Culture Fund, to our COVID-19 Emergency Response efforts, or to where funding is needed most. Your support is always valued – during Native American Heritage Month, Thanksgiving, and beyond.
Native Americans are still here in November and always. As the holidays and promotions pass, remember it’s always the right time to appreciate Native cultures and remember and honor the role of Native Americans in this country and in our lives.
About First Nations Development Institute
For 40 years, using a three-pronged strategy of educating grassroots practitioners, advocating for systemic change, and capitalizing Indian communities, First Nations has been working to restore Native American control and culturally-compatible stewardship of the assets they own – be they land, human potential, cultural heritage or natural resources – and to establish new assets for ensuring the long-term vitality of Native American communities. First Nations serves Native American communities throughout the United States. For more information, visit www.firstnations.org.