A Time to Celebrate Native American Heritage

November is a distinctive time for Indian country. Native American Heritage Month encourages the nation to celebrate the unique histories and cultures of this country’s first peoples.

Indian country has embraced the opportunity to share two of our most important core values: unselfish generosity and giving. We emphasize that each of us should take the time to acknowledge and share our blessings. Indian country remembers that it was the charitable nature of Native Nations that brought everyone together to share a meal and celebrate the fall harvest. That first international harvest celebration set a tone that this time of year is a time of family, friends and appreciation—a time to give thanks.

At the time of the first Thanksgiving, Native Nations did not consider excluding non-natives from the table; rather, they worked to cultivate harmonious relations with the newcomers. The abundance provided by the carefully used lands overwhelmed hungry Europeans, who had grown accustomed to plagues, drought and depletion of their natural resources through the generations. The Native Nations not only shared food with the strangers, but also knowledge about how to live in and maintain this rich country.

It is unfortunate that the story of the first Thanksgiving revolves around the Pilgrims’ trials and tribulations upon arriving in this country. Most of the Native Americans’ contributions to the 16th century go unrecognized by today’s society. In truth, Native Nations were already celebrating thanksgivings since time immemorial, as a way of showing appreciation and respect for the harvest. Written history has done little to document Native American realities. For example, more people associate the potato with Ireland and not as an indigenous vegetable of North America. Of greater concern, it is hard for most people to believe that there were once more than 15 million Native Americans throughout North and Central America, but by 1900 that population had dropped to fewer than 1 million. This is a sad part of world history that few people even know about or are willing to acknowledge.

Step by step, we are addressing the issues remaining from years of forced assimilation, deliberate policies of genocide and other devastating acts of extermination. Just as in the past, today’s Native Americans stand tall and face our challenges, and we are making progress on educating non-natives about the histories and cultures of Native America. While we recognize how far we have come, we know that a long road remains ahead of us.

Today, there are 564 federally recognized tribes and still many more that are fighting for their rightful place in American society, a mere handful in comparison to the multitudes who once thrived in this country before the so-called discovery of America. We, Native Americans and others, must always remember what Native Nations have lost throughout the formation of America. In spite of all the challenges, we have always been a part of progress in moving America forward, including defending this country. Indian country is the highest ethnic demographic to volunteer for military service, perhaps because we never lost the instinctual warrior drive to protect our country. Let us never forget our Native American warriors and keep them in our thoughts and prayers this holiday season.

The proclamations of November as a month celebrating Native American Heritage and Native American Heritage Day on Nov. 25 serve to encourage Indian country to use this time to recall traditions and demonstrate traditional knowledge. Through these proclamations, the United States is finally encouraged to honor the rich history of American Indians and recognize the countless contributions they made to this country. The influence and ingenuity of this continent’s first inhabitants encompassed many areas: mathematics, agriculture, government, architecture and warfare, to name a few. We must never shy away from the opportunity to educate the non-Indian community on the realities of Native Americans and our contributions to this society and transformations of the world. Native American Heritage Month is a time for us to remember these truths and help us down a path of continued regeneration for our cultures and our people.

I am proud to acknowledge that Indian country is still on the rise, and the National Indian Gaming Association is committed to advancing the lives of Indian peoples economically, socially and politically. In the spirit of Native American Heritage Month, we are continuing the legacy of our forefathers who laid the foundation for this great country, and we encourage others to join us. The philosophy of returning to the teachings of those that have come before is our bedrock of knowledge and, as Native Americans, it is a concept that has long been imprinted into our memories from generation to generation. This holiday season let us share with the less fortunate and return to the basic human values of fostering strong families and communities, assisting those in need and encouraging respect of and generosity to all things around us. That is the true meaning behind Thanksgiving.

Let us continue walking with self-determination and ever-growing resiliency.

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