‘We’re Still Here’: Native Americans Reflect on Heritage, History, and Visibility

published Nov 26, 2019
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It’s kind of ironic that Native American Heritage Month comes during the same month as Thanksgiving. It’s a month where children make pilgrim hats and feathered headbands, and a month that’s supposed to represent Natives, but the representation of us in classrooms is one that is stereotypical and outdated. 

So while we celebrate how beautiful we are, at the same time, we are reminding people that we are not a mascot or a cartoon. In our history books, Native Americans disappear after the 1920s, and for one month out of the year we remind people that we are still here.

Native American Heritage Month is a time that we are recognized, but it’s also a reminder of how invisible we are. I asked indigenous people across the country what the month means to them, and here’s what they had to say. I ask you to take our voices and share them in your homes and communities even after this month is over.

Jordan, 31, Kul Wicasa Oyate / Lower Brule Sioux Tribe; Tongva Lands / Los Angeles, CA

Native American Heritage Month means that we have visibility and recognition… for a month.  But to me, NAHM is every month. Our history—past, present, future—should be included in our education. Our voices should be uplifted and centered when talking about protecting our Earth and all people. Proposed legislation should include our voices and reflect that.  Indigenous Peoples have existed long before the pre-colonial constructs that exist today. Our ancestors fought and sacrificed their lives for us to be here. So this month, is one of many ways, to recognize and honor them by celebrating who we are. It’s a step in the right direction to give us visibility, however, we exist all months of the year. 

Every single Native person is the hope our ancestors had for us to survive. We are a shining, resilient reminder to the U.S. Government that they failed to eradicate us. Native American Heritage Month is a step in the right direction, where we can be seen and heard, as we celebrate who we are and help educate those willing to listen and change their perspective to help support Native people. This is an opportunity to correct the narrative of how we are depicted. We are speaking out, we are organizing, we are running, we are educating, and we are doing so much to show the world that we are still here. Support. Uplift. Respect. Acknowledge. And center Native voices. Mitakuye Oyasin, we are all related. [You can follow Jordan’s organization, Rising Hearts, on Facebook and Instagram.]

Credit: Submitted by Teddy

Teddy, 26, Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians; New Orleans, LA

Native American Heritage Month is a time for us to show others the ways in which we, as indigenous people, celebrate our cultures and traditions, both individually and collectively. While we celebrate who we are every day of the year, this month is important to help others recognize our rich histories and acknowledge the atrocities that took place against Native people.

While Native American Heritage Month is just another recognition month for many people, for me, it’s a chance to feel like my heritage is visible, especially in an era where Native people continue to be invisible to general populations. This month is a chance for us to educate others and correct the false, stereotypical, and misleading representations of Native people. We are strong, we are proud, we are resilient, we are still here. [You can also follow Teddy on Twitter.]

Deana, 37, Cherokee Nation; Tulsa, OK

To me, NAHM is an opportunity to both educate and celebrate. Tsitsalagi (which means, “I am Cherokee”), and this identity informs the many roles I hold every day of the year—relative (mother, grand/daughter, sibling, auntie), spouse, friend, teacher, public health researcher. Education is a constant factor across these roles. Deliberate attempts to destroy tribal cultures in our past mean that I must educate myself in order to be a culturally grounded Cherokee citizen and honor the resilience of my ancestors. I also educate others to ensure that my child and future generations of Native children can be proud of their heritage and (hopefully) not have to fight the same battles for visibility, respect, and sovereignty that Native people have fought for centuries.

At times, educating others is draining because the responsibility largely falls on Native peoples. We spend a lot of time correcting misinformation, dispelling myths, and sharing basic information that should be taught in our schools. NAHM provides a space to amplify some of those messages and shift the conversation to one that celebrates our rich and diverse Native cultures. Native peoples celebrate our cultures year-round, but it’s heartwarming to see a unified effort for NAHM. There are so many amazing things happening in Indian Country—our youth are leading the way in many instances and our communities are investing in culture and language revitalization. These things give me faith that over time, the education occurring as part of NAHM will deepen and many more will join us in celebration.

Credit: Submitted by Ryder

Ryder, 22, Pueblo of Isleta; Columbia, MO

On a very basic level, NAHM means celebrating anything and everything about being Indigenous. On my campus, it’s been a time where Native speakers from every field and walk of life have been invited to speak about their lives, their work, and their people. It’s really uplifting to have a whole month dedicated to hearing and learning from so many awesome Native people.

It’s also a weird month because it falls on the same month as Thanksgiving. So, on one hand, you have this case of increased visibility, but the last few weeks of the month are based on a federal holiday rooted in erasing Native voices. So while there’s a lot to celebrate and be happy for, you’re instantly reminded how much work still needs to be done.  

Credit: Submitted by Mellor

Mellor, 40-something, Navajo (Diné); Washington, D.C.

I was born and raised on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. In grade school, we had a Native American week where we made crafts, shared songs, danced and had a huge assembly where students presented their cultural talent. The highlight of the week was dressing in our traditional attire. Every year, my mother stayed up all night to put the finishing touches on new traditional regalia I would wear the next morning. I had a beautiful velvet shirt, freshly shined silver and turquoise jewelry with sacred moccasins adorning my feet.

Today, Native American Heritage Month means more to me than just instilling pride, because even after centuries of facing genocide, colonization and forced assimilation in the U.S., the Native people are still here.

Today I have my own Washington, DC-based consulting firm, called Chee Consulting LLC, and I also run 7Gen Leaders PAC, a Native American political action committee that helped elect the first two Native American women to the U.S. Congress—Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS). Whether it’s a meeting on Capitol Hill or an Embassy reception, I wear my Navajo flare because as a Navajo, every day is Native American Heritage Day.

Sarah Beccio is a member of the Pueblo of Isleta and founder and owner of Indigecomms, a strategic communications & public relations company. You can follow her on Twitter.