November is federally recognized as National Native American Heritage Month (NNAHM). During this month, American Indian and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) are honored and celebrated for their rich and varied cultures, traditions, history, and societal contributions. NNAHM gives us an opportunity to become more educated about Native Americans, increase our knowledge of unique challenges faced by this population, and better understand how historical trauma—such as colonization and genocide—has impacted Native peoples.
In 1990, a joint resolution was passed by Congress and signed into law by the late President George H. W. Bush declaring November Native American Indian Heritage Month. Within this joint resolution, Native citizens were recognized as America’s original inhabitants who made essential contributions to both the United States and the world, notably their prehistoric harvesting of potatoes and corn. In addition, Congress acknowledged Natives for their role in assisting the early European visitors to North America and Founding Fathers of the United States. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives believed the resolution would enhance self-esteem, pride, and self-awareness among young Natives. While this sentiment seemed benevolent, one must also consider its Eurocentric perspective. As the original inhabitants of North America, Tribal citizens are both members of U.S. society and have been integral to its development.
The contributions and achievements of Native Americans were first recognized during May 1916 in New York, called American Indian Day (PDF | 120 KB). This came about due to the efforts of Red Fox James (PDF | 1 MB), a member of the Blackfeet Nation, who rode from state to state on horseback seeking approval from 24 state governments for a day to honor Native Americans. In 1976, President Gerald Ford proclaimed October 10-16 “Native American Awareness Week” (PDF | 236 KB). A decade later, Congress passed S.J. Res. 390 (PDF | 92 KB), petitioning that the president call November 23-30 “American Indian Week.” In subsequent years Congress continued this practice, declaring one week during the autumn months “Native American Indian Heritage Week.”
Congress ultimately chose November as the month to honor Native Americans since the month concludes their traditional harvest season and generally is a time of celebration and giving thanks. In October of this year, the Biden Administration officially declared November NNAHM.
Celebrating National Native American Heritage Month
As of 2021, there are 574 federally recognized Tribes in the United States. However, numerous others are still advocating for recognition. Although many Native Americans still reside on reservations, approximately 71 percent live in metropolitan areas. To date, Tribal citizens constitute about 2.5 percent of the total U.S. population. Despite American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) living among the larger society, much of their history has been forgotten (PDF | 48 KB) or overlooked. For this very reason, NNAHM is of the utmost importance. This month can serve as a reminder of America’s indigenous people, or even provide many with a new understanding.
There are several ways to celebrate, honor, or observe NNAHM. You may consider learning more about Native American cultures, including rich and diverse stories of tradition and resiliency.
If you are in the Washington, DC area you can go to the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Native American Veterans Memorial. This memorial honors the military service of AI/ANs, who collectively serve in the armed forces at a rate of five times the national average.
You can also learn more about current issues faced by this population. According to SAMHSA’s 2020 NSDUH report (PDF | 3.6 MB), Native Americans aged 18 and older experienced higher rates of serious suicidal thoughts within the past year (5.6 percent) and were likelier to make suicide plans in the past year (1.8 percent) when compared to other racial or ethnic groups.
In addition, numerous Native people are murdered and go missing each year. Their plight has been referred to as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis. Substance use also is reportedly higher among Native youth on reservations. Finding ways to better understand these issues and best support Native Americans would prove most beneficial.
This population also faces unique problems regarding stereotyping and cultural disrespect. The names of professional sports teams have mocked Native American phenotypical features and heritage. Today makeshift headdresses or war bonnets are worn by and sold to non-Tribal members, and are considered highly offensive to many Native peoples.
To better understand the importance of certain cultural dress, traditions, and customs, NNAHM can be spent attending Native American-centered events, such as Powwows or reading books written by Native American authors. You could also support Native American-owned businesses.
NNAHM provides all Americans with an opportunity to experience and honor the richness of the Native American cultural heritage.
Another avenue worth pursuing is SAMHSA’s Tribal Affairs. Highlighted here are SAMHSA’s efforts to partner with Native Americans, which includes Tribal Consultation and funding opportunities to better assist Native citizens. Moreover, SAMHSA provides various resources to support this population in areas such as suicide prevention, violence prevention, mental health, and substance use. Lastly, SAMHSA provides an American Indian and Alaska Native Culture Card, which seeks to enhance cultural competence when serving Native peoples. This is a free, downloadable publication on the SAMHSA Store.