EDITORIAL: Honor and support Native American heritage

This week features not only Thanksgiving but also Native American Heritage Day on Friday.  As families gather to reconnect and savor their traditions over the long weekend, perhaps that’s a good time to bring in a new tradition — exploring other perspectives on the holiday.

That’s the message Record-Journal contributor Francesca Fontanez brought to the fore as she looked at ways we can learn more about indigenous people, their heritage, culture and contributions to modern America.

Before we get to her suggestions, a reminder that there are various recognitions of indigenous peoples in place. Indigenous Peoples Day takes place on the second Monday in October, alongside Columbus Day. It’s been celebrated since the 1990s in many cities and states. In 2021, President Joe Biden noted the day, the first time a presidential proclamation had occurred.

November is Native American Heritage Month with the day after Thanksgiving designated as Native American Heritage Day. The timing of this day has generated controversy as some tribal leaders say “Black Friday” is a day of excess and therefore not appropriate to indigenous culture, according to Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist and activist from the Oglala Lakota Nation. He’s spoken to numerous news organizations about this concern since the day received official recognition 2008.

American Indian Day is observed on the fourth Friday of September every year and is growing in recognition, according to various indigenous news sources, and celebrated by area tribes. 

According to the website nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov the movement to recognize the rich culture of the “First Americans” began in 1915.  A proponent of American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian who served as director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” and that launched more than a century of interest in obtaining better recognition. However, there remains no official national holiday.

Fontanez offered a ideas on how to learn more about indigenous people and support their interests. For instance, check out indigenous media sources such as storytellers, podcasters and even TikTokers who give insights into the Native American and other indigenous cultures.  

Attending indigenous events, that offer public admission is another option, along with visiting libraries or museums that focus on indigenous life, past and present. Connecticut offers opportunities for this; the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington; the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Montville; and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center — to name a few. 

Here’s an example of Native American history to be discovered, if we delve a little deeper. Founded in 1931, The Tantaquidgeon Museum is the oldest Native owned and operated museum in the country.  Dr. Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon was a medicine woman for the Mohegan tribe, an anthropologist, and she also worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her life story is worth a read. An herbalist, she lived to the age of 106. 

For a quick check in, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian website gives a brief, but enlightening history: “Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving.”  A good read for those who’d like to hear another view of what happened when that famous dinner took place in October 1621.

Fontanez also offered encouragement to those who want to find ways to support indigenous cultures. For instance, work to change harmful stereotypes such as those seen in some sports team mascots. Support advocacy groups such as the Native American Heritage Association and the Native American Advancement Foundation, with monetary donations.

We especially liked one approach Fontanez highlighted —  supporting “local creatives” within the indigenous community. One way to do that is happening from Nov. 26 through Dec. 11, when The Institute for American Indian Studies will host its Annual Holiday Market featuring indigenous vendors.

“Visit this fantastic recurring event to speak with artists and learn about traditional art and contemporary adaptations,” Fontanez writes.

We’ll all have a lot on our plates, so to speak, this week, but there’s always room for one more guest at our collective table. Inviting indigenous experience into our festivities is good way to start if we want to better understand the context of this celebration.


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