Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Celebrate Native America this November and always

by Bonnie Brown

Since 1990, November has been designated as Native American Heritage Month, providing a focused opportunity to become better educated, commit to justice for Indigenous peoples and acknowledge and celebrate the rich diversity of Native cultures. Important work is underway to counter centuries of injustice and cultural erasure that had rendered living Native Americans and their communities nearly invisible to the public eye.

Dept. of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) is the first Native American cabinet member. Her leadership is invigorating a commitment to Native people, honoring treaties (the supreme law of the land) and working with the 570+ federally recognized sovereign Native Nations on a government-to-government basis. Her office, with the Dept. of Justice, FBI and others, is addressing the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous persons, investigating generational harms associated with federal Indian boarding schools and removing derogatory, racist place names from federal lands. An inventory showed nearly 700 site names included a term used to slur Native women.

U.S. Treasurer Marilynn Malerba (Mohegan), National Park Service Dir. Charles Sams (Cayuse, Walla Walla), Federal Dist. Judge Sunshine Sykes (Navajo) and others are bringing invaluable perspective and leadership traditions to government service in record numbers.

Thanks to efforts by the National Congress of American Indians and other advocacy groups, several hundred sports teams, from pros to school districts, dropped “Indian-themed” mascots, names and imagery. Far from “honoring” Native Americans, these cultural appropriations objectify sacred traditions and perpetuate stereotypes of Natives in a mythical past.

 Morgantown Mayor Jenny Selin issued an Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation, as did hundreds of officials elsewhere, acknowledging historic and contemporary peoples. Our Constitution’s framers were inspired by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy’s centuries-old model of representational government; the same framers, however, ignored Haudenosaunee women’s power to appoint and remove governmental leaders.

“Indigenous Appalachia,” an exhibition celebrating 15 Indigenous Appalachian artists, launches with a Nov. 14 presentation and runs through June 2023 in WVU’s Downtown Library. Co-produced with Native scholars and linguists, I.A. includes an Indigenous land acknowledgement, information on tribes throughout Appalachia and a discussion of complexities in library and archival collections.

Exhibit visitors say they’re intellectually awakened by the new information and the featured artists’ abundant talents. They enjoy the West Virginia map with place names originating in the languages of five different tribes (Shawnee, Seneca, Cherokee, Myammia (Miami) and Lenape (Delaware)). The Seneca name for the Parsons area, Dwë:nodö:’ means “it floods there” and the Lenape call the Cheat River Absënbanék, “rock or stony river.” A carefully researched map of Indian trails shows we use some of those same routes today — they’re now paved and called “U.S. 219,” etc.

The Art Museum of WVU is hosting an exhibit of thought-provoking works by American artist Marie Watt (Seneca). In spring 2023 WVU’s Evansdale Library will host “Hidden No More,” acknowledging the early presence of Indigenous and enslaved people in what is now Evansdale.

Tour these exhibits and then enjoy from home acclaimed Native American-produced, acted and directed films and TV programs. Discover exquisite works by Native architects, fashion designers, poets, comedians and musicians in online venues. Indigenous chefs are opening restaurants, giving virtual demonstrations and publishing cookbooks featuring traditional foods.

The annual Thanksgiving hype is here. Try skipping the Pilgrim-Indian kitsch and fictionalized tales of the Plymouth harvest party. Instead, commit to truth-telling. Get to know your Indigenous neighbors. Learn to say thank-you from a free, online Native language lesson. Read about the Native American Rights Fund, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, IllumiNative and the National Museum of the American Indian’s resources for adult and K-12 learners.

Thanksgiving turkey, cranberries, potatoes, corn and pumpkin? They, and approximately 60% of the world’s food supply, originated with Indigenous North America. Native American stewardship and sustainability models are informing today’s essential dialogs on planet health.

While giving thanks, remember those who loved this land for millennia before the onslaught of European colonization. Their modern-day, equally committed Native American descendants deserve strong allies who’ll work beside them, increasing understanding, respect and justice, creating a future that evokes gratitude from all.

Bonnie Brown coordinates WVU’s Native American Studies Program.