Library of Congress
Red Fox James at the White House.

History of Native American Heritage Month

ICTMN Staff
11/30/13

The celebration of National American Indian American Heritage Month has happened every November since a resolution was signed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. But how did the month-long celebration of Native culture and history start?

It began as just a day. The first state to recognize an American Indian Day—the second Saturday of May—was New York in 1916, but the history of Heritage Month goes back even further.

Arthur C. Parker (American Indian Freemasonry/Wikimedia)

One of the early proponents of American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, Seneca. He was the director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Rochester, New York. “He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the ‘First Americans’ and for three years they adopted such a day,” says information from the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the history of the month.

In 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association approved a plan concerning American Indian Day at its yearly meeting in Lawrence, Kansas. They directed their president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, to call up on the country to observe a day for American Indians.

Coolidge issued a proclamation on September 28, 1915 declaring the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. The proclamation also contained the first formal appeal to recognize Indians as citizens.

The year before the proclamation, Red Fox James, Blackfoot, rode horseback from state to state trying to get approval for a day honoring Indians. He presented the endorsement of 24 state governments on December 14, 1915 at the White House. But, according to the BIA history about the month, there is no official record of such a national day being proclaimed.

Aside from New York being the first to declare an American Indian Day, several states celebrate the fourth Friday in September—Illinois enacted such a day in 1919. Several states also celebrate Columbus Day as Native American Day. But the day continues to be celebrated without recognition as a national legal holiday.

“This month is a time to recognize everyone of Native American heritage and [their] achievements and accomplishments,” Gunnery Sgt. Curtis Bradley, equal opportunity adviser for MCB Hawaii, told the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System. “It’s a heritage that can [not] be forgotten. Remembering the individual heritage makes us great, because everybody has something different.”

Zig Jackson, Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara, is the first contemporary Native photographer to be represented by the Library of Congress. This image, called "War Mothers," documents a 1995 honor dance performed for Howard Crow Flies High and Leroy Crow Flies High, veterans from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. (Library of Congress/Zig Jackson)

Here are ways you can celebrate this year, every day and in years to come.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Celebrate Native American Heritage Month

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