For more than one hundred years, Native and non-Native Americans have sought out a permanent designation on the national calendar to honor America’s earliest residents: the American Indian and Alaska Native people.
One of earliest recorded attempts to create a day of recognition for Native Americans dates back to 1912, when Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker (Seneca Nation), who founded several Indian rights organizations, persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to recognize “First Americans” Day, which they did for three years.
In 1915, Red Fox James, a Blackfeet Indian, traveled the country on horseback and secured endorsements from 24 state governments in favor of a day honoring American Indians. Although he presented the resolutions to the White House on December 14, 1915, the Library of Congress reports that there appears to be of such a day resulting from his efforts.
Earlier that year, at the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kan., the association’s president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge (Arapahoe Tribe) issued a proclamation declaring the second Saturday of each May as a day to recognize American Indians. The proclamation also included the first formal appeal to recognize Indians as citizens.
In 1987, Congress called upon President Ronald Reagan to designate the week of November 22-28, 1987 as “American Indian Week.” By 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution proclaiming November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
“Long before European explorers set foot on the North American continent,” begins the proclamation, “this great land has been cultivated and cherished by generations of American Indians. Unbeknownst to their fellowman halfway around the world, these Native people has developed rich, thriving cultures, as well as their own systems of social order. They also possessed a wealth of acquired wisdom and skills in hunting, tracking, and farming — knowledge and skills that would one day prove to be invaluable to traders and settlers from Europe.”
“Today Americans of all ages recognize the many outstanding achievements of this country’s original inhabitants and their descendants. Young and old alike know the story of Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who helped to guide Lewis and Clark on their historic expedition and, in so doing, helped to open the door to the Great West. The giant redwood trees protected in a number of our national parks bear the name of Sequoia, in honor of the great Cherokee leader who taught thousands of Indians to read and write and, in so doing, helped to unite and strengthen the Cherokee Nation. We also recall the achievements of Charles Curtis, the proud descendant of Native Americans who served this country not only as a member of Congress but also as Vice President. However, such celebrated examples constitute only a small portion of the rich, centuries-old heritage of American Indians. Indeed, each of the many tribes that have inhabited this great land boasts a long and fascinating legacy of its own.”
Since the initial proclamation in 1990, Native American Heritage Month has been formally recognized (under varying names) every year since 1994.
“Throughout the nation, Native American Tribes are holding special celebrations in November that honor their culture and history, which often dates back millennia,” said Camille Ferguson, Executive Director of AIANTA. “But as much as this is a time to honor past Native American contributions, it is also a time to remember that Native American culture is flourishing throughout the country. We encourage residents and visitors to attend a local powwow, film screening or other event to experience Native culture firsthand.”