November 2, 2012

Origins of Native American Heritage Month (November)


Generally thought to be a relatively recent phenomenon created by Congress, the roots of Native American Heritage Month go back over a century. It was Native Americans, themselves, who first promoted national recognition of their heritage. The Boy Scouts of America then became their political ally.

The first of November is the beginning of Native American Heritage Month in the United States. Its celebration varies considerably across the continent. In communities where indigenous peoples are numerous and politically influential, government agencies, schools and historic commissions sponsor exhibits, student projects and lectures. In many other communities, citizens are not even aware that November has any special significance to Native Americans.

Most Americans are not aware that citizenship in the United States was granted to indigenous peoples four years after women were granted the right to vote. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 finally made it a law that if you were a Native American, you were an American citizen. However, many states and local governments in the Southwestern and Southeastern United States continued to ignore that law until the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress during the Lyndon Johnson Administration.

Typical of the situation in the Sun Belt, the state of Georgia had laws on the books that forbade American Indians from voting, owning real estate, attending public schools or even testifying in their own behalf in court. In the early 1970s, Governor Jimmy Carter pressured the state’s General Assembly to abolish these, now unconstitutional, statutes.

The first outcries for Native American constitutional rights came in Oklahoma as a result of the dissolution of tribal governments and the allotment of parcels to former tribe members by the Dawes Act of 1895. In particular, members of the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee) found themselves stripped of protection by the law, when they were theoretically made citizens of the Territory of Oklahoma. Most Native American tribes that originated in the eastern United States had long traditions of women being able to vote and own property. Suddenly, the Native women were put into the quasi-citizenship situation of Caucasian women. Both Native men and women were often subjected to abuses by the courts of the Oklahoma Territory.

In 1902 the Woodcraft Indians was organized in Connecticut. Caucasian boys were organized into “tribes” and “bands,” then taught woodland survival and artistic skills, based on a Native American theme. In 1910 the Woodcraft Indians merged with several other groups to form the Boy Scouts of America. The American Boy Scout program had a distinctive “Indian and frontiersmen” theme that was different than the parent organization in the United Kingdom, which essentially prepared boys for military service and expansion of the British Empire.

In 1914 Red Fox James, a Western Blackfoot Indian, rode on horseback throughout much of the United States in a campaign to establish a national holiday honoring American Indians. On December 14, 1915 he presented petitions from 24 states to President Woodrow Wilson at the Whitehouse. There is no evidence that Wilson proclaimed such a holiday.

The Boy Scouts of America was the first institution in the United States to recognize a day that honored Native Americans. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Tribe member, was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, NY. From the turn of the century onward he campaigned for special recognition of the indigenous people’s many contributions to North American civilization. He finally convinced leaders of the recently formed, Boy Scouts of America, to set aside a day for honoring the “First Americans” in 1915.

That same year, E. Urner Goodman, a 25 year old Scoutmaster in Philadelphia, accepted the job of camp director of the Philadelphia Boy Scout Council’s Treasure Island camp on the Delaware River. He implemented Native American themes in the camp, based on the characters in Jame Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.” At the end of their time at the camp, the boys would vote on a select few scouts who they thought best projected the ideals of “Scouting.” Those so honored, were inducted into an Indian lodge with elaborate Delaware Indian rituals.

By 1921 Goodman’s special recognition program had spread to some other parts of the nation, and was known as the Order of the Arrow. It was originally more of a popularity contest than a measure of Native American traits. Apparently, no American Indians were members of the Order of the Arrow in its early days. Nevertheless, this special fraternity within the Boy Scouts of America has continued to honor the indigenous heritage of North America for almost a century.

In May of 1916, again at the behest of Albert C. Parker, the State of New York declared American Indian Day. Illinois legislators designated American Indian Day in 1919. Soon several states began designating the fourth Friday in September as American Indian Day. Several states continue to have a Native American Day, but it has never had the status of a national legal holiday.

Throughout the 20th Century, the Boy Scouts of America continued to be the only national institution that consistently presented Native American culture in a positive manner. As generation after generation of boys went through Scouting, this positive image began to spread outward into American society. Former Boy Scouts became local, state and national leaders.

During the 1970s several Native American entertainment and sports celebrities, along with Hollywood actors such as Martin Sheen, Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando began advocating that Columbus Day be changed to Native American Day. Some states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but this co-designation also had no national legal status.

After over 20 years of agitation by Native American leaders, celebrities and some members of Congress, a joint House-Senate resolution was finally passed that designated November 1990 as “National Native American Heritage Month.” It was signed by George H. W. Bush. In 1994 a similar resolution was signed by Bill Clinton. Since that time, similar resolutions have been passed each year by Congress, but Native American Heritage Month still has no permanent legal status within the federal government.

AUTHOR: Richard Thornton
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