Over the course of the last few months, plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline have fallen under the public eye of the nation, and the placement of the proposed pipeline has become the subject of mass censure from environmental advocates, as well as members and supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Native American tribe. As the conduit travels for a great length underneath the Missouri River – the tribe’s primary water source – and, reportedly, crosses through a sacred tribal burial ground, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has even gone so far as to sue the corporation, the Energy Transfer Partners, for its construction. The past few months have seen many activists gathering around the site of the pipeline in order to protest and hopefully bring about an end to the project.
Fast forward to the present: it is early to mid November. For most, this is when you start unpacking your holiday decorations, enjoying the invigoratingly cool temperatures and watching in dismay as the degrees descend to gelid madness, and in general, prepare for the long winter ahead. Oh, and you worry about our nation’s future because no matter your political compass, such a radical ideological change in the White House is bound to scramble your way of life to some extent. In the fleeting days of 2016, many step back from vehement and spiteful discussion and debate (after the election hubbub dies down, of course) and turn their focus to more universally comfortable conversation. However, while you settle down for the holidays, it may be important to remember that November is National American Indian Heritage Month.
Over a century ago, in 1914, a Blackfoot Indian, Red Fox James, traveled throughout the United States, petitioning for the approval of a nationally acknowledged day celebrating the Native American people. While twenty-four states endorsed the idea, the proposed remembrance was not legally formalized. A year later, the Congress of the American Indian Association officially approved plans for a national day honoring Native Americans and declared the second Saturday of May as the designated holiday. Since then, not only have many states dedicated a specific day to the American Indian people, but also in 1990, George H. W. Bush officially declared November as National American Indian Heritage Month, with each year paying respect to the original wishes of Red Fox James.
To honor the oft-misunderstood and oversimplified cultures of the many native peoples in the United States, numerous national parks and museums throughout the nation hold celebrations and educational presentations throughout the month. Within our own state, the Piscataway Indian tribe holds children’s programs, but the real wealth of activity can be found in our own nation’s capital, a mere thirty-five miles away (although who knows how many are actually going to the capital). With the Smithsonian Institution right in town, and specifically, the National Museum of the American Indian, there are countless ways to recognize and celebrate the culture of the first Americans. Whether one is just visiting the museum or participating in one of its many opportunities to interactively learn about the American Indian, one can be sure that they will leave the building more learned and interested in the heritage of our nation’s indigenous people. We must take the time to recognize the importance of the knowledge of the people that established the foundation of civilization within our borders and provided so rich and diverse a cultural heritage that leaves much of the world in a sort of perverse and arrogating awe.
So don’t sit idly through this month while opportunities to truly honor the early American nations slip by. Educate yourself. Learn about the first settlers of the land. Be enticed by the colorful traditions in a context of enlightenment in their value, rather than the aesthetic of Halloween costumes. Take this month – before the frenzy of the holidays overtakes you or the weather turns hypothermia-inducing and awakes the hibernating bear within you – to educate yourself on the mores and traditions of the groups that populated the original America. If we all did the same, we may not be asking ourselves if it is really appropriate to potentially contaminate an entire community’s traditional drinking supply or violently encroach upon – and almost certainly destroy – a sacred historical and cultural site.