The Origins of Native American Heritage Month (and Its Many False Starts)

Since 1990, Native American Heritage Month has been celebrated every November. But how did this time of recognition come to be? And why did it take the U.S. so long to get there?

Native American Heritage Month is celebrated at Grand Canyon National Park (Grand Canyon National Park via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, Wikimedia Commons)

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November marks the 32nd anniversary of the first Native American Heritage Month, while September is the 106th anniversary of American Indian Day, the original holiday created to honor the lives and legacies of the indigenous groups that settled the Americas over 20,000 years before European colonists came along. But why did it take so long to commemorate these groups that were so imperative to American history? And how has the holiday evolved over time into what it is today?

Native American Heritage Month did not begin as a federal brainchild. It actually got its start with the Boy Scouts of America in 1912. Arthur C. Parker, the director of the Rochester Municipal Museum (now the Rochester Museum and Science Center) in New York, and a member of the Seneca tribe, persuaded the organization to celebrate the first Americans as part of their history lessons. The Boy Scouts did, and from 1912 to 1915, all Boy Scout troops celebrated “First Americans Day.” This was the first nationwide celebration of the histories and cultures of indigenous groups. However, “First Americans Day” disappeared from the Boy Scout program after three years, with scout leaders at the time claiming that three years of the holiday was sufficient recognition. This removal erased what little progress had been made. Fortunately, other groups were actively working to celebrate the day on a much larger scale.

In 1915, the annual convention of the Congress of the American Indian Association was held in Lawrence, Kansas. At the meeting, two members put forth a petition to adopt a national holiday for indigenous groups at the federal level. The Congress passed the petition, and board president Reverend Sherman Coolidge issued a proclamation with two key demands. The first was that American Indian Day would be celebrated on the second Saturday of May each year. The second was that all members of indigenous groups who had been born within U.S. borders would be granted citizenship. The Congress sent the proclamation to the governors of all 48 states, requesting their signatures of support.

Twenty-four states approved the proclamation after Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, rode over 4,000 miles across the nation on horseback to personally ask for support from every governor. At the ride’s conclusion, James rode to Washington, D.C. and presented the signed motion to the White House. However, the federal government granted neither request. American Indian Day became a holiday celebrated only by the American Indian Association, but this setback only lasted for one year.

Then-governor of New York Charles Whitman decided that if the White House would not recognize the holiday, his state would. He declared that the first statewide American Indian Day would be observed on the second Saturday of May 1916, and that the holiday would continue to be celebrated at the same time in all following years. At the time, the American Indian Association called the holiday an important step toward recognition, but expressed disappointment that citizenship was still denied to them.

Meanwhile, other states that had supported Coolidge’s proclamation immediately followed suit, but they did so with a noted lack of uniformity. Illinois declared that their American Indian Day would be celebrated on the fourth Saturday of every May. Other states celebrated the holiday in October or November. While a holiday recognizing indigenous groups’ contributions and cultures was emerging, it had little national coherence.

That was, until 1976.

When the United States celebrated its bicentennial, multiple federal actions were taken to acknowledge important features of America’s past, including the creation of new monuments and the establishment of Valley Hills National Park in Pennsylvania. As part of the celebration, President Gerald Ford designated October 10-16 “Native American Awareness Week” to honor the important part that indigenous groups played in the U.S.’s establishment.

While the special week was only intended to be observed that one bicentennial year, indigenous groups like the Tribal College Journal still praised the gesture, as well as Ford’s other pro-indigenous actions such as returning land to the Kootenai tribe and improving healthcare accessibility for reservations.

Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan established “American Indian Week,” an annual period of recognition that would run November 23-30. The annual observance was shorter than many other modern federal recognitions, which were a month long, but the intent of honoring important members of American history, culture, and society was similar.

But the recognition was likely cold comfort to indigenous groups, who were on far less friendly terms with Reagan compared to Ford. After all, Reagan’s ministration had cut 82 percent of economic development funds for indigenous groups. Reagan also considered various measures to reduce the size and number of reservations.

The idea that American Indian Week was not received as well as Reagan had anticipated was reinforced by Suzan Shown Harjo, then executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, who said Reagan “had headed the worst administration for Indians since the days of outright warfare and extermination,” according to a quote in the June 1, 1988, New York Times.

Reagan later apologized to the National Congress of American Indians in a meeting that, according to Indian Country Today, did little to smooth things over.

“American Indian Week” remained a federal designation until November 14, 1990, when president George H.W. Bush, having decided one week was not enough to fully honor America’s indigenous groups, according to nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov, declared the entire month of November Native American Heritage Month. Bush’s proclamation included all indigenous tribes in the contiguous United States, as well as in Alaska, but not those in Hawaii, because they were included in Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, observed in May.

Bush’s designation of a holiday recognizing Native American heritage was widely celebrated by indigenous groups. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said that “Bush had demonstrated tremendous leadership in the highest office of the world,” through the holiday, as well as by restoring federal recognition of the Ponca and Coquille tribes.

Since 1990, Native American Heritage Month has been observed every November, prompting the entire nation to consider and celebrate the important influence of indigenous groups on America, both in the past and the present. Additionally, plans have been discussed in the Biden administration to bring back a federal holiday honoring indigenous groups. The day would be known as “Indigenous People’s Day,” exist along with Native American Heritage Month, and be celebrated every October in conjunction with Columbus Day, according to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is herself a member of the Pueblo of Laguna.

This plan has been approved by multiple indigenous groups, including the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. One of their members, Mandy Van Heuvelen, who is also the Cultural Interpreter Coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian, said that “It [Indigenous People’s Day] can be a day of reflection of our history in the United States, the role Native People have played in it…and a day to gain some understanding of the diversity of Indigenous Peoples.”

However, since these plans have not yet been solidified, Native American Heritage Month remains America’s primary observance of indigenous people across the United States.

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