In recent years, we have had Columbus Day thankfully replaced in many places within the United States with Indigenous Peoples Day. While, welcome in the attention it focuses on Native and First Nations peoples across North America, it comes with negativity and necessary information.
Columbus and his journey to “discover” America from Spain resulted in, not only the beginning of the invasion of the continent by Europeans seeking freedom and land, but also in the massacre, rape and pillaging of Indigenous peoples – by Columbus and his crew and then the onslaught of settlers in the colonies, the stripping of forests, myriad diseases that dessimated tribal peoples and land grabs that are notable for their violence and disrespect.
So while Indigenous Peoples Day is ONE day of recognition and writings about these first peoples of the Americas, the month of November is meant to offer 31 days of information too. Is it fully respectful, honoring, inclusive and informative? Sometimes. Is it meant to fulfill some goal of assuaging feelings of guilt or shame among European descendants as movements for cultural diversity, inclusion and equity proliferate around the world? Perhaps.
It IS an opportunity for all of us to assess our relationship to, contact with, and possible friendships among the populations of the Indigenous cultures and tribal groups. Mostly invisible to many, Native peoples in recent United States census enumerations give some perspective, as there are 2.9% that have identified as Native/Indian according to recent reports (CNN – Why the jump in the Native American population may be one of the hardest to explain: https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/19/us/census-native-americans-rise-population/index.html#:~:text=They%20now%20account%20for%202.9,according%20to%20the%20Census%20Bureau.). That’s a small percentage of the overall population of our country AND it is believed to be a low count of the actual population of people with full Native identities and those with mixed racial families. And it is also representative of some of the isolation and invisibility of tribal people broadly. While the vast majority of Native people live in urban areas, others are very isolated on the remote reservation systems across the country. The likelihood is that you actually KNOW and perhaps work with Native people but you don’t even know it.
Which speaks to the classic comment heard often: “You don’t LOOK Indian!” as if there is a physical “type” or “look” that all should be. Yes, television and media generally don’t help in this case, as the stereotypical images in cowboy westerns or depictions in movies (think Dances with Wolves) confuse many with historical imagery. Where are the “modern” images that are as diverse as the multiracial communities in which we all live? The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian released a documentary, A Thousand Roads, depicting four modern Indigenous people as they cope within modern communities with the challenges of retaining their identities. The popularity of the Hulu series Rez Dogs (remarkably an entire cast, writing and directing group that is virtually all Indigenous!) gives us a glimpse too of the humor and stories of some young adults and the often hilarious and difficult lives they are negotiating.
Good reading can be found through some great writers.
Books that are especially good for Native history, with extensive footnotes to further works, include Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and for a sweeping history of the North America, please read The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere by Paulette F.C. Steeves. All of these books include bibliographies, source notes and/or citations that will lead the reader to even more resources. A fundamentally good resource book, that offers frequently asked questions with answers, comes from the National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian Institution) – Do All Indians Live in Tipis? by a group of contributors from the museums’ tribal specialists, Elders and leaders. It’s just a starting list but can help you to move into more study as you are ready. A book that should be mandatory reading for anyone claiming indigeneity based on their DNA is Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science by Dr. Kim Tallbear.
As a genealogist and family historian, in my own family research, I have encountered much of the worse of the stereotypes and the outcomes of negative encounters between the White/European worlds with Indigenous peoples and organizations. I recently wrote articles, hoping to guide researchers in their pursuit of genealogical information about researching among our Native peoples, archives, libraries and tribal governments. Family Tree Magazine has published The Do’s and Don’ts of Respectful Native American Research (https://familytreemagazine.com/heritage/native-american/respectful-native-american-research/) and an earlier article in the Family Tree Magazine, November/December issue covered some of the same information.
So as you may be considering Native American Heritage Month and perhaps activities that will guide you in learning about or studying various tribal peoples, please consider respectful ways of engagement that will help to build good relationships for all of us.
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