By Kat High and Shannon Speed
November 27, 2020
Nov. 27 is Native American Heritage Day. The first American Indian Day was celebrated in New York in May of 1916. The event brought to fruition the work of Red Fox Skiukusha of the Blackfeet Nation, who rode 4,000 miles across the country on horseback, eventually garnering approval from 24 state governments for a day to honor American Indians. More than seven decades later, President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution designating the month of November “National American Indian Heritage Month.” In 2020, President Donald Trump reversed this trend and reasserted a settler narrative by giving a “National American History and Founders Month” proclamation, in addition to the National Native American Heritage Month declaration that every U.S. president has made since 1990.
Native American Heritage Day and Month are important ways that this country acknowledges a painful history. After gaining independence, the United States, through ongoing settler colonialism, continued to wage war against and perpetrate massacres of Native American peoples, removing them from their ancestral lands, subjugating them to unfair or unenforced treaties and eventually subjecting them to multiple forms of forced assimilation. In California, Native peoples were forced into slavery in the missions from 1769 until about 1833, and from 1850, the state government sanctioned and financially rewarded the open killing of Indians. It would not become illegal to hunt Indians until 1924, when Indians were declared citizens of the United States. Our rights to practice our cultures would not be protected until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. As our society works to come to terms with its past, eliminating monuments and other harmful celebrations of past injustices, the history of Native dispossession this country was founded on should not be forgotten. Native American Heritage Day is a good day to reflect on this past.
Another important reason for celebrating Native American Heritage Day and Month is to recognize that Native peoples survive and thrive today, despite the centuries of genocidal efforts and ideological erasure. We number more than 6.9 million in the United States, and there are 574 federally recognized Nations. There are many more tribes still seeking federal recognition.
In California, one-third of the tribes either never sought or were denied federal recognition. For many, federal recognition has simply become irrelevant — one more settler technology of elimination. They will continue to exist as peoples, and the federal government’s word has no bearing on their peoplehood.
Los Angeles County has the largest population of Native Americans of any county in the U.S., many of us with roots in other places. But, in honor of Native American Heritage Day, we suggest you ask yourself whose land you are on. Who are the traditional people of Los Angeles?
The Gabrielino-Tongva peoples are the traditional land caretakers of the land UCLA sits on, along with much of the Los Angeles Basin and Southern Channel Islands. To honor them, UCLA has developed a land acknowledgment statement, in collaboration with Tongva elders. Like Native American Heritage Day, the land acknowledgment is symbolic, and serves to acknowledge the past, including more healthy Native relations with the land, and to highlight contemporary Tongva presence on this landscape. When Native American Heritage Day and Month are over, you might take this practice with you, remembering to always ask yourself, wherever you are, “Whose land am I on?” Take the care to educate yourself about those peoples — their past and their present — on those lands.
Finally, with the recent resurgence of interest in caring for the land in light of raging wildfires, and the interest in growing your own garden during this pandemic, consider setting down roots here in the soil of Southern California. Look into native plants and their use in a modern world, and ways Native people cared for this land over millennia. Honor your roots, discover Native roots and experience the nurturing this land can give you. In all of these ways, by engaging this land and its traditional caretakers, we can make every day Native American Heritage Day.
Kat High is an advisor to the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center, the Autry Museum of the American West and the Antelope Valley Indian Museum. She is of Hupa descent.
Shannon Speed is the director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center. She is of Chickasaw and Choctaw descent and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.