Features Magazine Volume 69, Issue 3

Native American Heritage Month

Race relations in the United States generally focus on relations between whites and African-Americans, or with immigrant minorities. Too often neglected are race relations involving Native Americans, who face discrimination through historic land seizures and high rates of poverty continuing to this day; indeed, in 2016, 26% of Native Americans lived in poverty, which is the highest of any race. Conversely, this discrimation led to an enduring struggle for Native American rights. One example of this struggle for rights, and recognition by non-Native Americans, is Native American Heritage Month, occurring November and first proclaimed in 1990 by white President George H.W. Bush. However, this recognition of Native American heritage did not originate amongst whites; it was the Native American and Cherokee J.C. Elliott-High Eagle who in October 1976 first wrote a proclamation establishing American Indian Awareness Week, a precursor to Native American Heritage Month. Every President since has also recognized Native American Heritage Month, albeit with varying levels of focus on the holiday. For instance, this year, President Donald Trump proclaimed November National American History and Founders Month, celebrating the white founders of our country, a proclamation which some Native Americans, “believe the founders proclamation diminishes the importance of the time set aside to honor them,” according to journalist Felicia Fonseca.

 Celebration of Native American Heritage Month is also only one part of an enduring civil rights struggle. From 1969 to 1971, Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island, to raise “visibility for [Native American] issues,” said Eloy Martinez, an activist and one of the 140,000 Native Americans living in the Bay Area, in an interview with Native American journalist Terri Hansen. This struggle is not consigned to the history books, however. In October 2019, Native American activists “[took] a canoe journey around Alcatraz to mark Indigenous Peoples Day and pay homage to occupation of the island 50 years ago,” according to Hansen. Martinez also said that “with all the problems we are facing today, whether that be climate change or the return of hate and racism, the message of the Alcatraz Occupation is as important today as it was 50 years ago,” and that “many of the conditions that compelled us to take over Alcatraz in 1969 are still with us today: missing and murdered Indigenous women, high suicide rates, alcoholism, poverty, and poor health.”

Bay Area Native Americans have also displayed individual resilience. In an interview with Joe Whittle, Decoy Gallerina, a Native American living in Oakland who has, about 56.1% of Native American women, been sexually assaulted, said that she is “a courageous, tenacious, kind and ferocious spirit” despite “[suffering] from chronic, deep suicidal depression, OCD, low self esteem, and self-abusive behaviors for most of [her] life.”