Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of National Indian Gaming Association (Photo courtesy of National Indian Gaming Association)

Ernie Stevens Jr. Reflects on Native American Heritage Day

Ernie Stevens Jr.
11/24/11

The following is a message from the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association on Native American Heritage Day.

This week America takes time off to celebrate the annual Thanksgiving holiday. Historically, Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration signifying the sharing and brotherhood extended by Native Americans to the first English settlers in Massachusetts. On behalf of the National Indian Gaming Association Executive Board and our 184 member tribes, I want to send to you and your tribal community our best wishes this holiday week. I also want to recognize the special Indian events surrounding this Thanksgiving holiday.

On November 1, President Obama issued a proclamation celebrating Native American Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Day on November 25. In honor of Native American Heritage Day, NIGA Board Member Andy Ebona and a group of Tlingit dancers from Alaska will perform this Friday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The President's message on Native American Heritage Day is an important reminder to all Americans that we should take a moment to reflect upon the Native American contributions to the formation of the United States. The Native American Heritage Day Public Law is the result of five years of hard work by the National Indian Gaming Association working alongside our sister organizations National Congress of American Indian (NCAI), National Indian Education Association (NIEA), and numerous tribal regional organizations. Indian country is indebted to Congressman Joe Baca (D-CA 43rd) and Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) for their Congressional leadership in enacting this into law.

The mainstream story of America's Thanksgiving Holiday typically includes only a few paragraphs on the story of the Native American contribution during this national holiday. Before the invasion of European settlers, Native Americans tribes cultivated over 75 percent of the many food varieties grown in the world today, including nearly all of the staples that make-up our Thanksgiving meal, from sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and corn, to of course the wild turkey indigenous to North America. The early Massachusetts colonists, who arrived here with their own dreams and ambitions, would not have survived if the Narragansett and Wampanoag Tribes had not embraced them and welcomed them to their shores. Those tribes shared their knowledge with the colonists on how to cultivate crops, hunt, and trade for essential items with the other tribes in that region.

Since the first Thanksgiving the gradual destruction of Tribal Nations is well documented and is something we should never forget. Tribal Nations have experienced the loss of their land base and centuries of economic hardship. Today, Tribal Nations are still working to overcome these obstacles, but Indian Country has never stopped sharing with this Country its resources, culture, and ingenuity. We can't change history, but we can continue to tell the story of the first Americans and their central role in a uniquely American holiday. For me, educating my children and other young Indian people about the past is as much of a responsibility as anything we do professionally.

This week, as each of you observe the Thanksgiving Holiday, take a moment and reflect upon the sharing exhibited by our ancestors during that first Thanksgiving feast. Take a moment to think about how Native Americans truly influenced this country, and how today Native Americans still stand proud and ready to share in the sacrifice to defend this Country. Finally, take a brief moment to reflect on Friday, November 25, "Native American Heritage Day," the sharing and giving spirit that American Indians carry forward to this day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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