by Manuel Muniz
There are nearly 10 million Native Americans living in the United States.
There are more than 500 recognized tribes, with different cultures that are unique. From art to literature to food and music, there is so much to appreciate and learn about Indigenous people
While many of us refer to Native people as Native American, the National Museum of American Indian says it is better to use the individual tribe’s name when referring to a specific person. Other common terms are American Indian or Indigenous.
“But if you are in doubt, ask what they prefer to be called,” says Ted Hibbler, who runs the Native Coalition in Nebraska. “We are each different. We have different customs and traditions,”
At the start of every November, Native American Heritage Month, and Alaska Native Heritage Month, are celebrated. It is a time to champion the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, history and contributions Native people have made to the country. Along with celebrating them, it is time to acknowledge their hardship and struggles, not only that they’ve suffered throughout history, but in the present as well.
Native American Heritage Month evolved from a week when then-President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the week of November 23-30 to be American Indian Week. Later, President George H. W. Bush approved November to be National American Indian Heritage Month, which was later changed to Native American Heritage Month under President Barack Obama.
One common misconception is that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, when in fact there were already more then 50 million Native Americans and Indigenous people on the land, and a fifth were native to what is now the United States. Another misconception people have is thinking Natives were born in and live-in teepees. It is offensive to even ask about as they live contemporary lives. The majority of Indigenous people were born in a hospital, just like many others, and live-in regular houses as well.
The biggest misconception, though, is thinking the Native American population get a free ride from the government. They have to pay income taxes just like the rest of Americans, but with the slight difference that they do not always get the same government services.
According to the Indian Health Services (IHS), they only spent roughly about $2,800 per capita for patient health services. It is way below the national average of $7,700. The IHS clinics are often difficult to access, not only on a reservation but in urban areas as well, where the majority of Native Americans live today.
The Natives had entire civilizations wiped out by the European colonizers and the diseases they brought with them. As of 2020, there are approximately 9.1 million people in the United States that identify as Native American, according to the United States Census Bureau. That is an 87-percent increase from the previous census. They account for about 3 percent of the population and expected to climb to 10 percent by the year 2060, as projected by nicoa.org.
Currently, Alaska and Oklahoma have the largest population of Natives, followed closely by New Mexico and South Dakota. There are approximately 326 reservations and 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. There is an estimated175 Indigenous languages spoken in the United States today, as reported by indiancountrytoday.com. The largest Native American tribes are Cherokee and Navajo, with the populations of 819,000 and 332,000, respectively.
Unfortunately, a lot of Native American history gets swept under the rug and is hardly taught in schools. Many do not know, or fail to recognize, that there was genocide committed in American territory by our government. Did you know Adolf Hitler was closely inspired by indigenous genocide in North America? Manifest Destiny and the Third Reich are scarily synonymous. The Trail of Tears, San Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee Massacre, and Camp Grant massacre are a few examples of mass killings. But when the “Indian Wars” came to a screeching end, a new type of genocide emerged.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bureau of Indian Affairs founded American Indian boarding schools. For years, these institutions kidnapped children from their homes and families. These children were physically, sexually, and mentally abused in order to “kill the Indian, save the man.” They were forced to forget their traditions because it was considered uncivilized, and they were coerced into becoming English-speaking laborers. Today, this is seen as cultural genocide. A culture cannot survive without its children to carry on its traditions.
Earlier this year, the remains of more than 1,000 indigenous children were found in former residential boarding schools in Canada. It forced the United States to look at the legacy of such schools in this country.
“We just want to make sure that families today get the information that they’ve wanted for decades and decades,” said Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior. Haaland is the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. History.
While boarding schools existed a while ago, violence against Native women is a current issue. According to mshoop.org, abuse experienced by Native women is nearly 50 percent higher than Black males, who are the next highest. They are also 3.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women of any other race.
Many times, the police who are there to protect fail to do so. In an episode of “Crime Junkie: Mysterious Death of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places,” it took the police more than 36 hours to respond to her grandmother’s pleas to look for her granddaughter. They told her that the teen “probably ran away with a man, or was out drinking and partying.” Kaysera was only 18 years old.
Her body was found five days later by a jogger in a backyard, but her killer has not been charged.
“If something happens to you, if something happens to your loved one, you’re on your own,” said Kaysera’s aunt in an interview with “Dateline.”
Native Americans weren’t even granted citizenship until 1924, while it took yet another four years for all 50 states to allow them voting rights. Navajo people were also crucial during WWII efforts. They were known as code talkers, using the Navajo language to transmit top-secret information to allied forces.
While there is work to be done to get Native Americans on equal footing, many have made changes for a promising future. For example, in 2020, NFL’s Washington Redskins changed their name to The Washington Football Team, getting rid of “Redskins,” which is a derogatory term used for those of Native descent.
This year, the Cleveland Indians baseball team followed suit and are now known as the Cleveland Guardians. While that is the bare minimum, it is a start that can jump start a brighter future.
A lot of gratitude is owed to the Native American population. Things used every day and are taken for granted such as rubber, corn, kayaks, and farming, they helped develop. While November is specifically their month, they should be celebrated every day, as they are an important piece of the colorful American puzzle.