Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Native American Heritage Month: How We Observe and Why

How Do We Observe Native American Heritage Month and Why
By Steven L. Danver

In many ways, the idea of Native American Heritage Month is good and important. Not many would argue against the celebration of the lives and cultures of our nation’s longest inhabitants. But the larger questions of why we celebrate it and how we celebrate it are, in many ways, the themes that have guided me and my career. You see, I am a historian – a non-Native one – who studies Native American peoples. Many would call that a laudable profession and I certainly agree with that. However, there have been many non-Native people who have studied Native American history and cultures, but have used that knowledge in haphazard, or even capricious, ways. But it doesn’t take a historian to use Native cultures in offhand ways. Many members of the general public dress themselves up as “Indians” for Washington Redskins or Atlanta Braves games, ostensibly to “honor” Indian people. Just as it is easy for non-Natives to think that they’re honoring Indian people without even really thinking about the message they’re sending, it’s easy for non-Natives to study and write about Indians without considering why they’re doing what they’re doing. As Choctaw historian Devon A. Mihesuah put it when discussing teaching American Indian history to non-Natives, courses “were ‘safe’ in that never once did professors mention the terms ‘decolonization’ or ‘empowerment,’ nor did anyone ever talk about author bias, theory, or the importance of considering Native voices.” (Mihesuah 2003, 459)

I once received a book entitled America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage, and the title illustrates the point. Learning about and commemorating American Indian “heritage” can have less to do with Native peoples themselves, and more to do with celebrating a “unique” part of our shared national heritage. Native peoples, even as we celebrate them, can be little more than mascots for our national identity.

My own education on this topic began with an encounter with one of the most prominent Native scholars of the 20th century, Vine Deloria, Jr. I had just begun my doctoral work, and was interested in studying Native American history. Deloria was the keynote speaker at a symposium on Native American cultures that I was attending, and at which I was scheduled to present only my second academic paper. I had already read a number of his works, which had begun to form the basis of much of my thinking about Native American history and culture. When I worked up the courage to introduce myself to this towering figure, the first thing he asked me was what I was studying and presenting at the conference. I told him that I had presented a paper on the Sun Dance, as a religious revitalization movement among Ute Indians. His response floored me. He told me that I studied Indians because I thought they were “weird”. That I needed to study things that were “important”. Once I’d regained my sense of self-worth (after a number of my mentors who knew Deloria told me that this was just the way he was), I worked long and hard to figure out what he meant and what it meant for my own work. Certainly I didn’t think Native people were weird, but the fascination I had with Native cultures had led me to study a topic that, though “fascinating”, did not have as much of an impact on the issues that American Indian people faced today. Indian people did not need me, a non-Native, to tell them what the history of a 19th century religious movement meant to them. Rather, the topics that were really important for a non-Native historian of Native American peoples to look at were the ones that had long and interesting histories, but were of continuing significance to Native people. What this meant for me was finding a topic, water rights in my particular case, that was still of vital importance to many Native groups today. This is not to say that studying things like little-known Native religious movements is a bad thing, rather that it is vital that non-Natives, both members of the general public as well as academics, need to tread lightly when dealing with symbols and expressions of Native American cultures and religions. The potential for inadvertent damage is too great to ignore.

So, why even bother honoring, learning about, or teaching about Native American peoples if it is so difficult? Why bring up the ramifications of all of that history of warfare, intentional disease spreading, cultural and religious repression, and genocide? It is precisely because the history is so problematic that we need something like “Native American Heritage Month,” but it is also because of that history that we need to pay close attention to how and why we are celebrating it. Are we celebrating it because Native Americans are a “fascinating” part of our nation’s heritage, or is it because it is truly important to us to know about Native American lives and the issues they confront on an ongoing basis, such as poverty, diabetes and other health concerns, a lack of political recognition and sovereignty, and (as with my work) being deprived of their natural resources in order to fuel non-Native development? As Glen R. Alley and Lester B. Brown explained, “Each new person is someone who can teach us. Each one is someone who can increase our knowledge about others. Each one has qualities that we need to know about, that we need to respect, that we need to take into account as we try everyday to improve the world we live in. It is ours but it is also theirs. They have as much right to a life as qualitatively good as ours.” (Brown and Alley 2003: 130) So, what is being served by recognizing Native American Heritage Month, our own curiosity, our sense of our “national heritage”, or the issues that are truly important to Native people today?

Brown, Lester B. and Glen R. Alley. “True Colors: Are Others What We Want to See?”
American Indian Quarterly 27(1 & 2), Winter and Spring 2003, 121-131.
Mihesuah, Devon A. “Basic Empowering Strategies for the Classroom.” American Indian Quarterly 27(1 & 2), Winter and Spring 2003, 459-478.


Dr. Steven L. Danver, PhD, is professor in the Center for Undergraduate Studies at Walden University, and is managing editor of Journal of the West. He received his doctorate in American History from the University of Utah, specializing in American Indian history. Dr. Danver has edited or coedited a number of ABC-CLIO books, including The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia; Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia; and Popular Controversies in World History: Investigating History's Intriguing Questions. He was recently the recipient of a Research Dissemination Award from the Center for Research Support at Walden University.

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