Native American Heritage Month: Recognition is nice, but repair is still required

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Activists march for missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Women's March California 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)

On the night of Oct. 10, 2016 in Reno, a group of protesters settled under the famous downtown arch to speak out against the Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL) and advocate for the replacement for Columbus Day. 

The majority of the group was comprised of Indigenous men, women, and children who had also given speeches and held a march earlier in the evening. After taking a photo under the landmark and chanting while holding banners that displayed their message, they were confronted by a white truck. The driver, a white male, pulled up in front of the group and began to rev his engine. He was then approached by two protesters and, after continuing to rev and inch the truck forward, he drove through the crowd, injuring five and hospitalizing one. Eventually, he was charged with a misdemeanor and received no jail time. 

My nephew was one year old when he was in that group with his parents. I was 23 the night I received the news at work, and was very confused about how anyone could justify such an action. I would argue with those around me and online who said the protesters deserved it for blocking the street, for confronting the driver, for not backing down. I’d pick apart the video and explain there were other roads that could’ve been taken, that it makes no sense to claim self defense after starting a confrontation, and that the whole point of a protest is to display that you will not be intimidated. These truths mattered to none of them. Their focus had changed from the message of the protest to the terror of the driver, who they say was right to “fear for his life”.

My nephew’s dad was one of the three others arrested. He was one of the first protesters to confront the truck and his charges ended up equaling the driver’s. Now every year on Indigenous People’s Day he posts the mugshot that was taken after he got booked and I think that’s pretty funny. As a Native in America you’ve gotta have a sense of humor about these things, otherwise you’ll never make it through. We learn at a young age to laugh about being let down.

Because honestly, that’s what America was made for. To work against us. Long ago the Founding Fathers set up this institution for them and their ilk to thrive in. They hyped up their belief in man’s equal rights while also calling my people “merciless Indian savages” in their Declaration of Independence. This was always a country created for their people but never entirely, as stated, the people. As heralded and righteous as they are made out to be nowadays, I’m sure those rich 18th century white men would be aghast at the state of the nation now. Slaves freed, women voting, them Indians getting the whole month of November to be celebrated … such betrayals would surely cut deep.

Which is to say Happy Native American Heritage Month! Did you know such a thing was going down? If not, it’s alright. I forget myself sometimes and have to be reminded by the notice in my tribal newsletter. It’s been kinda overshadowed by the election this year and the Thanksgiving holiday every other. But yeah, it’s true. Since 1990 George H.W. Bush and every subsequent president has signed a proclamation designating this month to be a celebration of Native peoples and their accomplishments. There’s even a Native American Heritage Day contained within the Native American Heritage Month. It takes place the day after Thanksgiving, making Black Friday more like Native American Heritage squared.

So how will you celebrate? Will you text your closest Indigenous friend and say “thinking of u”? Will you educate yourself on our history, our triumphs and hardships (I just told you of a recent one, so you’re welcome)?  Will you stress about not caring enough or decide to not care at all? I’m not sure, I’m not you. I think it’s pretty cool to care but also know it’s easier to act as if you don’t.

All I can do is share the little bit of history I know and recommend researching all the causes we’re fighting for. Specifically, I request you read up on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement (MMIW) and do all you can to help put a stop to that horrible epidemic. It’s heavy but necessary work and these are human lives that require saving.

How you choose to celebrate this month is up to you. There are many ways to do it so long as you believe we’re worth the effort. It’d be nice to know you care but that kind of comfort hasn’t been something we’ve historically been able to depend on. But still, we’re here. So, if you learn anything, let it be that. We are still here. Always have been, always will be. Whether you choose to recognize us or not.