Yes, there is a day to recognize and celebrate Native American Heritage. It is the day after Thanksgiving. The month of November is Native American Heritage Month.

These are important for our country and for the people whose heritage is being recognized. The indigenous people of the Americas have incredible histories and cultures. Much has been lost, but it is not too late to appreciate what is left and look back at what is gone. In understanding each other, we can more fully appreciate the depth of the country and the people who make it what it is.


It was a long time coming. The first person to try to establish a day of recognition was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a member of the Seneca nation. He worked to get the Boy Scouts of America to establish an "American Indian Day." That was between 1910 and 1915. He was unsuccessful.

In 1990, Republican California Congressman Joe Baca, originally from a Hispanic family in Bernalillo, New Mexico, sponsored a bill to establish a Native American Heritage Day. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush and set as the day after Thanksgiving. The law, passed to recognize Native Americans for their contributions to the United States, was supported by 184 recognized tribes.


In 2009, with additional input from the United States Senate, the law was passed again, adding the designation of Native American Heritage Month to November. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The heritage of Native Americans is broad and diverse. There are 574 recognized tribes with a population of slightly over seven million. Native People own over 24,000 businesses, and 8 percent of Native Americans over 25 have graduate or professional degrees.

When it comes to heritage and tradition, every tribe has its own. In some tribes that have become a part of the predominant culture, many of these have been lost. But the stories and records are there, and today young people hunger to search for their history from the elders. People are re-establishing their connections with the past, be it something simple like old recipes handed down or traditional clothing that a grandparent has in the attic.


In the Southwest, many tribes actively participate in the arts and ceremonies passed down for generations. When you walk onto the plaza at Santo Domingo and feel the power of the drums as hundreds of dancers perform a dance that has been danced for hundreds of years, it sends a chill down your spine. Watching the Kachinas dance in a Hopi village takes you back to a time before there was a country.

Driving across the Navajo Nation, you will sometimes see people on the side of the road selling "Kneel Down Bread," made as it has been for generations. Nellie Tsosie's Pinyon cream goes back to when plants and herbs were the medicines that cured people. Young Zuni, Navajo, and Apache people carry fetishes with cornmeal in leather pouches as protection.

Morning prayers and offerings of corn meal are a part of many Southwestern Native lives. Medicine men are highly regarded. When I asked him if medicine men were disappearing, Anthony Tallboy said there is a renewed interest among young people. A few weeks ago, I spent several hours with a Navajo detective from the "White Collar Crime Unit" in Window Rock, and he talked about traditional beliefs and how important they are to the people.


The weavings, jewelry, pottery, mutton stew, sheep, and shade tree hogans all go back to when the Navajo were powerful. The traditional meals of the Pueblo people, except for paper plates and soft drinks, haven't changed much. Nor has their hospitality to visitors. You are greeted and invited to eat when you enter a Pueblo home. "Sit down. Eat, Eat with us."

Respect for elders and their stories is much more common in Native families than in the average American family. And it is incredible how the tribal languages have been able to survive. Conversations with Pueblo and Navajo or Apache people often require young people to translate.

Schools like the University of New Mexico, Fort Lewis College, and the University of Arizona have programs and Native American Centers where the tribal heritages are celebrated.


I don't know much about tribes out of the Southwest. However, in visits to North Carolina, I have been to Cherokee, where the people still speak the language, make it a point to wear traditional clothing to events and create their baskets the same way their ancestors did. In New York, the Iroquois still carve bone necklaces. The Tohono O'odham still craft their baskets and pick the fruits of the cactus.

My friend, Bill Lovett from Alaska, still buys ivory carvings and baleen baskets from Eskimo artists who killed walruses and whales for food.


Native people from all over the country travel long distances to dance at Pow-Wows, celebrating their heritage. If you have attended one of these events, you can feel the dancers' joy as they move to the sound of the drums and tribal songs. They are dressed in beautiful traditional outfits, celebrating who they are and where they have come from.

The biggest one is held at the University of New Mexico in "The Pit" (the basketball arena) and is called "The Gathering of Nations." These gatherings are held across America, from Florida to Stanford University in California.


The Native people of America are proud. In large part, I believe that Native American Heritage Month is more about giving non-Natives a window to recognize America's first inhabitants' incredible diversity and history.

At Toh-Atin, we are thankful for the 65 years of being able to work with amazing indigenous people from whom we continually learn.