Native American Heritage Month needs more attention

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Who knew Native American Heritage Month was coming up? Maybe you did — if so, congratulations. But if you haven’t, you’re not alone.

Established by former President George Bush Sr. in 1990, Native American Heritage Month, also referred to as “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month,” was created to raise awareness and celebrate Native American heritage through events, ceremonies and festivals. The month is designed to educate people who know little about both the beauty of the culture — including the tribes, art and rituals — and the horrible mistreatment of Native Americans. This is the 35th year that November will be dedicated to this entire race of people, and like the past 34 years, many will move through the month clueless about the event’s existence.

Coincidentally, this celebration falls in between Columbus Day (Oct. 12) and Thanksgiving (Nov. 26), both of which are heavily celebrated holidays but often misremembered. These two days are painted as harmless victories for the white settlers, when the reality was anything but. Settlers committed genocide against Native Americans, and almost 90 percent of the population died after they came. It is almost always overlooked that Thanksgiving, an American holiday that predominately involves families feasting on turkey and watching football, glorifies the slaughter of thousands of Native American families. While these holidays are fondly remembered, they celebrate the brutal mistreatment of Native American peoples displaced throughout U.S. history. Meanwhile, an entire month dedicated to acknowledging the beauty of Native American people and culture is largely ignored.

A huge part of the problem lies at the doorsteps of schools. Perhaps one of the reasons that Native American Heritage Month is so neglected is that Native American students make up the smallest percentage of students in schools across the United States by a long shot: less than 1 percent. This lack of representation is no excuse for failing to acknowledge the culture when it is so deeply engrained in the course of U.S. history. The only taste of Native American “appreciation” I got in my early years of school was wearing feathered headdresses and learning about various tribes right before Thanksgiving break. Looking back, the casual crafting and wearing of these headdresses were mockeries of the culture. Instead, educators should have brought awareness to the month and explained that nearby American holidays, including Thanksgiving, are falsely portrayed as having been benign.

From elementary to collegiate levels, there are seldom opportunities in school to learn about the Native American identity and people. Their history and culture must be emphasized in ways that shed light on instances of severe, institutionalized mistreatment. In short, we need to change the way Native American history and culture is treated and understood.

With Native American Heritage Month beginning this week, it is more appropriate than ever before to spread awareness. Southern California has 19 federally recognized Native American reservations, one even inside of Los Angeles County. In San Diego County alone, there are an estimated 18 American Indian reservations, making it the county with the most Indian reservations in the United States. Occidental should make an effort to acknowledge Native American culture, especially this month. There should be as much emphasis on this topic as there is on this year’s campus theme, sustainability. Even though every month comes to a close, the raising of awareness during this month doesn’t have to end when December rolls around.

George Newton is an undeclared first year. He can be reached at gnewton@oxy.edu.