Native American Heritage Month

When I was a kid,  westerns were the most popular shows on television.  Often these shows pitted cowboys against Indians.  That led to kid’s play along the same lines.  In my case,  I was an Indian.  We didn’t actually have many gun battles, but we did dress up in our best native imitation and wander far and wide among the forests in our area.  We practiced moving stealthily and quickly through the forest and up the hill then spying on those ‘cowboys’ (actually anyone wandering around) below us. We also practiced woodcraft, mostly learned from  The Golden Book of Camping and Camp Crafts.

Hiawatha's Friends by Frederic Remington

“Hiawatha’s Friends” by Frederic Remington

In those days I didn’t have much contact with real Native Americans, but as I got older I maintained an interest in native culture.  In college I took an archaeology course and would research Indian Mounds in the school library then set out to visit them and soak in their surroundings.  There are a lot of Indian mounds scattered around, and protected, within the city of Madison, Wisconsin, where I grew up.   I now live in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and around here there are also lots of reminders of the prior caretakers of this land, from pictographs and petroglyphs to prayer seats and vision quest sites.   Not only that, but many of the descendents of those ancient Native Americans live here still.

In honor of the Native Americans that built the foundation for our country,  the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have gotten together to proclaim November as Native American Heritage Month.  A variety of events have been scheduled through the month.  You can find a list on the website of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Nez Perce Canoe

Nez Perce Canoe

Whether it is the oil and gas leases in the homelands of the Blackfeet Nation, that are being cancelled, or the pipeline going through the homeland of the Standing Rock Sioux, that is currently a battleground, reconciling the respect Native Americans deserve with the peculiarities of European culture continues to be difficult for the nation.  At the very least, serious consideration of Native American Heritage Month and even redirecting Columbus Day into Indigenous People’s Day will help people of all kinds better understand the importance of and effects upon those who came before and those that remain here still.

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month,  I recommend that everyone take the time to read or reread Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (read online or buy a book).  While not written as an historical document,  Longfellow did an excellent job collecting Native American legends and wrapping them into a moving story of tragic love that can be understood by all.

For a realistic and thought-provoking look at some of the mis-representations perpetuated about Native Americans,  including those depicted in the westerns on TV and the books I read as a kid, check out this 2008 lecture by Edwin Schulman, author of Do All Indians live in Tipis?

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