November is Native American Heritage Month. This month is an opportunity to celebrate the prosperous and mixed cultures, customs and history of Native Americans, also known as Indigenous Americans. Living Indigenous ancestors crossed the Bering Strait from Asia to what is now the United States at least 15,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. This resulted in the eventual development of a wide range of peoples, communities and cultures. However, the new diseases, war, ethnic cleansing and enslavement brought on by European colonization of the Americas, which began in 1492, resulted in a significant drop in the Native American population.
After its founding, the United States continued to wage war and commit massacres against numerous Native American peoples as part of its policy of settler colonialism. It also forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands and subjected them to one-sided treaties and discriminatory government policies, which were later centered on forced assimilation. The Wampanoag Confederacy's sachem, the chief, Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit, and governor John Carver of the Plymouth Colony, drafted and signed the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty on Mar. 22, 1621. Both parties agreed to uphold the terms of the agreement, which maintained amicable relations between the parties.
In 1915, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, the president of the Congress of the American Indian Association, signed a proclamation that declared the second Saturday in May to be “American Indian Day.” From there, individual states declared their own days to honor the heritage of Indigenous people in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1990 when President George H.W. Bush declared the month of November “Native American Heritage Month” that nationwide recognition was achieved.
Today, Native Americans make up 6.79 million people in the United States, or roughly 2.09% of the national population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 574 Native American tribes are officially recognized by the United States, and over 100,000 Native Americans live in fifteen states.
North Carolina has eight tribes that have been officially recognized by the state: the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan. Other tribes like the Tuscarora Tribe exist in North Carolina, but do not have state recognition.
Native American Heritage Month is also an ideal time to learn about tribes among the broader public, to create a better understanding of the difficulties that Native Americans have encountered throughout history and the present, and to highlight the efforts made by tribal members to overcome these difficulties. One way to celebrate Native American Heritage Month is by attending educational events. On Nov. 16 at 6 p.m., NC State is hosting a Native American Heritage Month Cultural Showcase. The North Carolina Museum of History is hosting its 27th Annual American Indian Heritage Celebration. The event is free to the public and will include performances, presentations and live demonstrations.
Additionally, a variety of public organizations have compiled resources on Native American history and culture, including the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Several Native American authors have received praise for their work, including Tommy Orange, Louise Erdrich, Stephen Graham Jones and Joy Harjo. Not all of their novels are historical nonfiction, but they do provide opportunities to diversify one’s library.
By Aminah Jenkins, Editor in Chief, and Sheridan Taylor, Contributing Writer