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Remaking Native American Heritage Month

Lindsey Catherine Cornum
11/18/11

Native people across America have just finished another exhausting campaign to explain to the ignorant and insensitive the inherent racial exploitation of their Indian Halloween costumes. Yet, on the heels of that annual struggle, there is yet another display of Americans' misguided and backhanded “appreciation” of Native peoples and one that gets a lot less criticism: Native American Heritage Month.

This month is part of the larger tradition of the U.S. government granting minorities and marginalized peoples their own month as an abstract monument to their histories and recognition of their oppressions.  There is Black History Month, Asian Pacific American History Month, LGBQ Pride Month and many others. In fact, there are so many people to cover that many have to double or triple up. March is shared by Women, Greeks and the Irish, while Germans, Italians and the Polish all have to live in October.

The preceding nationalities are all qualified by an obligatory “-American”. This addition signals that heritage months may be for celebrating outside histories, but only in a context that emphasizes their absorption into a larger American culture. This is a way to honor the sacrifice of those peoples who have been more than happy to jump into the neutral categorization of American without qualification (synonymous with “white”) and reward them with a brief sense of history not fully provided with a relatively new nation. I don't think it is in the best interest of tribes and Native peoples to attempt such assimilation: it is usually a tactic to take more land and steal more resources. They start by giving you private property; they end by calling you American. We are made to believe these are all good things, gifts we should be grateful for. Well, I refuse to believe. There will be no Thanksgiving this November.

There isn't an America history month because it’s an American history year. American history decides what other histories it's going to include, and what times it's going to include them. At the Native American Heritage month events I have attended in the past, there is always eventually the same joke: We may have the month, but the white man owns the calendar. The white male power structure rents out months to keep the voices of its victims separate and contained. It is rather like the “free-speech zones” that flourished under Bush II as a way to contain protestors and squelch their passions.

Current president Barack Obama put his signature on the Native American Heritage Month proclamation last week with the same empty promises and broad sentiments of every prior year. He begins with what seem like benign compliments of Native peoples' “enduring achievements” and an earnest commemoration of the “vital role American Indians and Alaska Natives play in enriching the character of our Nation.” For some the recognition of Native cultures as anything other than barbaric and strange may seem like a good thing, but the other choice is to be recognized only as a part of a larger Nation “character.” Obama never acknowledges Native cultures as valid in their own right. Instead they are like spices “enriching” a culture for the sake of the dominant nation’s flavor. We can begin to see that Native American Heritage Month isn't really about Native Americans, it’s about Americans trying to re-make heritage into a happy story of co-existence and multiculturalism.

Obama then moves on to the obligatory acknowledgment of that whole genocide/dispossession issue, though of course he calls nothing by name. Instead he “recognizes the painful chapters in our shared history” and then makes a vague promise to “build a better future together.” Yet, there cannot be a better future until the American government and its citizens take a long, hard look not only at a painful past but also a very painful present. They may try to put the issues of government oppression into the past, recognizing it only within the discourse of “heritage”, but Native peoples know government oppression still happens every single day.

In order to make Native American Heritage Month a more honest period of awareness and recognition,   I have several suggestions to make to my fellow Native peoples and their tribes all across the country.  This month should be one of actions, not just cultural events that please the crowd but don't make them question. Occupations are getting a lot of attention right now, and ironically this may help tribal de-occupations get attention too. Tribes could take back their traditional homelands and take over government buildings in order to run public services on their own. These places could be held under the demand to honor all treaties since betrayed. In the interest of education, tribes could erect monuments and memorials throughout towns, cities and parks to commemorate important moments in tribal histories, specifically memorializing the places of murder and dispossession but also places of tribal resistance.

This is not a statement against Native peoples who find Native American Heritage Month a time to celebrate and raise awareness of their cultures to a larger, rather ignorant population. It is of tremendous importance to force awareness of Native peoples and their struggles. However, I do not think the sanctioned space of a “heritage month” is the way to do it. There are much more meaningful expressions of pan-tribal pride and much more effective tactics for raising awareness than Native American Heritage Month. In fact, the first thing that has to go is the name. November will now be called The Month of De-colonization. We begin by de-colonizing the calendar, while working to de-colonize ourselves, and then we can begin to de-colonize America.

Lindsey Catherine Cornum is a Navajo-Irish writer and independent scholar. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and writes for the blog, Mixedblood Messages.

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