Native American Heritage Month has officially been celebrated in the United States each November since 1990. This is recognized on the federal, state, and local levels with special programming and events to highlight and honor the traditions, culture, history, and language of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
Keep reading to learn more about the national Native American Heritage Month and how to honor Indigenous people.
What is the Native American Heritage Month?
American Indian Day was first celebrated in New York in May 1916, decades before Native American Heritage Month was established.
Multiple people are credited with helping to get American Indian Day recognized in the United States, including Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian born in 1881. Dr. Parker was a scholar and archaeologist who pushed for the Boy Scouts of America to recognize a day for the “First Americans.” The idea for this day was further discussed during the 1915 Congress of the American Indian Association, and the president and an Arapaho Indian minister, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, proclaimed the second Saturday in May as American Indian Day.
Around the same time, Red Fox James, a Blackfeet Indian, traveled on horseback to more than 24 states seeking support for a national Native American Day.
Native Indian Day was first officially observed on the state level in New York in 1916, and other states followed. Illinois started celebrating the day in 1919 and Massachusetts in 1935.
President George H. W. Bush first recognized Native American Heritage Month on a federal level in November 1990.
Today, Native American Heritage Month is observed each November and is used as a time to honor the legacy of Indigenous people, to reckon with the past, and to acknowledge the unjust treatment many Native people faced at the hands of the American government.
What is the Theme for Native American Heritage Month 2023?
Every year since 2002, Native American Heritage Month has had a theme. The theme for the 2023 Heritage Month is “Celebrating Tribal Sovereignty and Identity.”
“Tribal sovereignty ensures that any decisions about Tribes with regard to their property and citizens are made with their participation and consent,” according to the Department of the Interior.
Past themes have included:
- 2020 – “Resilient & Enduring: We are Native People.”
- 2019 – “Honor the Past, Embrace the Future”
- 2018 – “Empowering Indian Country”
- 2017 – “Standing Together”
- 2016 – “Serving Our Nations”
The 2023 theme of “Celebrating Tribal Sovereignty and Identity” brings attention to the fact that American Indians and Alaska Natives were stripped of much of their tribal sovereignty and ability to govern themselves by Europeans and the American government. During American Indian Heritage Month, this theme gives people time to reflect on treaty responsibilities and recognize the tribal sovereignty that does exist.
Today, there are 574 sovereign American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages that are recognized by the federal United States government.
5 Fascinating Facts For Native American Heritage Month
Native communities and Native peoples help keep the rich history and traditions alive all year long. Native American Heritage Month is a time to acknowledge and celebrate the many contributions of Indigenous peoples.
Here are five fascinating facts about important figures in Native American history to help you celebrate Native American Heritage Month.
- Marine Colonel Nicole Mann became the first Native American woman to travel to space in October 2022. She is registered with the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
- Sequoyah, a member of the Cherokee Nation, developed the first written form of the Cherokee language in the 1820s. This led to the creation of America’s first bilingual newspaper, Cherokee Pheonix, in 1828.
- Jim Thrope, a Sac and Fox Nation member, became the first Native American to win a gold medal at the Olympics. He won gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912.
- Secretary Deb Haaland is the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. A member of the Pueblo of Laguna, she was confirmed to this position in 2021 and became the first Native American to hold a cabinet secretary position.
- Sherry Pocknett became the first Native American woman to win a James Beard Award in 2023. She is a Mashpee Wampanoag Chef and won in the Best Chef: Northeast category. Her restaurant, Sly Fox Den Too, is located in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and the menu highlights Northeast Indigenous cuisine.
How to Celebrate Native American Heritage Month
There are many different ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. One way to start is by acknowledging the ancestral lands that you live on. Many different resources, like the Native-Land.ca tool, allow you to search an interactive map based on your zip code.
Another way to celebrate this month is by finding local museums in your area that offer special programming related to Native American history or culture. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has locations in Washington, DC, and New York City. Even if you don’t live near one of these cities, there is a good chance that your local community has a museum with information about the area’s Indigenous peoples.
Consider watching a movie in a native language. Prey, which was released in August 2022, was the first movie to be entirely dubbed in the Comanche language. SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) was released in 2018 as the first feature film made in the Haida language.
Native American Heritage Month Activities
Organizations are putting on events throughout November to commemorate Native American Heritage Month. Here are some activities to participate in:
- Find lesson plans for kids to help teach them about the complex history of Europeans and Native Americans. Topics provided by the National Park Service include Native American Reservations, Gifting and Trading during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and Painted Lodges in Glacier National Park.
- Visit one of the many Indigenous heritage sites around the country that are protected by the National Park Service. These sites include the Canyon De Chelly National Monument in the Navajo Nation, the Alagnak Wild River in Alaska, and Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama.
- Wear red to bring attention to Red Shawl Day on November 19, which is a time to raise awareness of the horrible violence that happens against Indigenous people, especially women and children.
- Recognize and honor November 24 as Native American Heritage Day.
- Explore the online exhibit REPRESENT: Contemporary Native American Art, which is hosted by the New York State Museum, or the online exhibits provided by Smithsonian’s National Museum.
- Watch films and shows covering diverse stories from Native Americans and Alaska Natives provided by PBS.
- Listen to podcasts like the Native American Calling Podcast, Unsung History, and This Land.
There are many ways to get involved during the National Native American Heritage Month, but remember that it is important to stay engaged all year long. For more stories about Native American languages, browse the resources on ALTA’s Beyond Words Blog.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator. You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.