Five Ways to Celebrate National Native American History Month

Updated: Mar 16

Honor the Cultures of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island

National atlas. Indian tribes, cultures & languages : [United States] LoC
National atlas. Indian tribes, cultures & languages : [United States] Library of Congress

No, Columbus did not “discover the America” in 1942, nor were the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were the first in the the land we now call the “United States." The Vikings who arrived in North American in 1021 may have been first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, however, people have been living in this part of the world for tens of thousands of years before the Vikings landed Newfoundland, Canada. Research now shows that people have been living and dating back to at least 33,000 years. This is more than twice as long as previously thought!


The peoples of the land we now commonly call “the Americas” are diverse with rich artistic, cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions, from Eastern Woodlands to the Plains and theGreat Basin to the Southwest to the Northwest Coast and California. The history of the United States can not be understood without recognizing the peoples who have been living in this land for tens of thousands of years before European conquest. To honor the “First Americans,” Dr. Arthur C. Parker (April 5, 1881 – January 1, 1955), an archaeologist, historian, and folklorist of Seneca and Scots-Irish descent, persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans.” In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawerence, KS, formally approved a plan for “American Indian Day.” Its president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, issued a proclamation on Sept. 28, 1915, which declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day. It also contained the first formal appeal for recognition of Native Americas as U.S. citizens. (Native Americans were not granted citizenship until June 2, 1924 despite their generational ties to this land!)


American Indian Day was first recognized on the state level. With the governor of New York declaring the second Saturday in May 1916. Several states, including Illinois in 1919, declared the fourth Friday in September. Today, it is celebrated across the United States on the second Monday in October, and in 2021, President Biden became the first U.S. President to formally recognize the holiday with an official proclamation given on Oct. 8. 2021. In 1990, President George Bush, Sr. approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations, under variants on the name (including “Native American Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) have been issued by the U.S. president annually since 1994.


As it is essential the Indigenous peoples tell their stories about themselves and their history and culture and because the arts and cultures of the Americas are so diverse, rather than give a biography of a select group of artists, musical instruments, or artistic styles, I wish to share with you a list of ways to help you to discover more for yourself. Here are five questions to get you (and your kids or students) to think about, recognize, celebrate, and honor the many indigenous peoples of the U.S. and their cultures:


1. Discover On Whose Land You Live

Visit Native Land to learn the peoples who have historically lived in, treaties that have been signed, and languages that have been spoken in your area. Native Land Digital is a resource that strives to create and encourage conversations about the “history of colonialism, Indigenous ways of knowing, and settler-Indigenous relations, through educational resources such as our map and Territory Acknowledgement Guide.” This process is often referred to as "Land Acknowledgement,"


For example, here is the peoples’ territories map is the map for my region, Chicagoland, Illinois, USA. Once you locate your area, you can further explore the arts and cultures including traditional art forms such as folk music, visual arts such as painting and drawing, ceramics, basket weaving, textiles, jewelry making, dance and more of the peoples of your region by researching online via academically and culturally reputable websites or at your local library.


To learn more about read Selena Mills' 2019 article, What Are Land Acknowledgements and Why Do They Matter?.


2. Watch Native American Dancers and Tell Their Stories


Music making, visual art, dancing, and rituals have played essential roles in every culture across the Earth. Listening to music and appreciating the visual and performing arts of Indigenous peoples help us to develop an appreciate for these arts in context of the cultures from which they arose. Learn by watching the video Wacipu: Celebrating Native American Dance and Song (PBS Wyoming) above and the video Native Pride Dancers at the Kennedy Center below. In each, the artists explain the significance of their music, dances, and dress and give you context for their art forms.



3. Build A Musical Instrument

You may also want to explore how traditional instruments are made and even build your own rattle, hand drum, or wooden flute using a kit from a company that specializes in Traditional Native American instrument kits. I have done this myself using a kit from Centralia Fur and Hide. Building an instrument in this way helps show the relationship between the artistic tools, such as musical instruments, and the land that they come from. Watch drum builder Eric from Centralia Fur and Hide construct a hand drum in the video above.


4. Taste Indigenous Cuisine

Often when we think of "the arts" painting, sculpture, drama, poetry, dance, and music come mind, but what about culinary arts? The foods that people eat, just like the musical instruments they play or the fibers they weave, come from the land in which they inhabit. In a sense, when we eat, we are becoming the land. Native American cuisine includes eating foods that were grown and eaten in this hemisphere before colonization ingredients include the "three sisters" (corn, squash, and beans), maple syrup, acorn flour, bison meat, venison, and poultry. Wild rice and amaranth are also popular foods.


Ogala Lakota Chef Sean Sherman shares recipes in his 2017 book The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, and he has opened a fine-dining restaurant featuring native foods in Minneapolis, MN called "Owamni." Watch the video below to see Chef Sherman foraging for ingredients. Sherman says, "It's fun to put artistry on the plates and make food look pretty, but it's really about these food pieces having them tell their story. Because we think about our grandparents and great-grandparents and the foods they ate and for a lot of Native American who are removed from their food ways, we started to loose a lot of those stories." For more native recipes, see 25 Native American Recipes as well.



5. Appreciate the Art and Music of Native American Composers and Artists of Yesterday and Today

Boston Public Library
Boston Public Library

In our next post, we will be introduced to five specific examples of many Native American artists who have made significant contributions to the music and arts. But, you can begin exploring the artistic contribution of Indigenous artists by looking at the following museums and online collections:


8 Native American Artists Challenging the Way We Look at History


American Indian Association of Illinois

American Indian Art


Boston Public Library Celebrates Native Americna Heritage Month

Institute of American Indian Arts


Folkways Recordings: American Indian Music


Folklife and Cultural Heritage: Native American Culture


Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, IL


North American Collections at the Field Museum


Portland Museum


 

Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.