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News | Oct. 29, 2021

Grounded in Tradition…Resilient in Spirit: Celebrating Native American/Alaskan Native Heritage Month

By James Likes Defense Finance and Accounting Service – Columbus Audit Support Office Director, and Native American/Alaskan Native Employment Program Committee Member

In November, we recognize Native Americans and Alaskan Natives prominent accomplishments and contributions to our country during National American Indian Heritage Month observances. Due to the pandemic, we will celebrate Native American Heritage Month by sharing informative articles in the DLA and DFAS daily bulletins and websites. I encourage you to take the time to learn more about Native American and Alaskan Native traditions and cultures.

This year’s theme is “Grounded in Tradition … Resilient in Spirit.” American Indian culture emphasizes harmony with nature, endurance of suffering, respect and non-interference toward others, and a strong belief that people are inherently good and should be respected for their decisions. University of Oklahoma School of Social Work researcher Betty Duran stated in her online article American Indian Belief Systems and Traditional Practices that such values make individuals and families in difficulty reluctant to seek help. Approximately 13,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples traveled across the Bering Strait via a land bridge from Asia to modern-day Siberia and Alaska. Commonly known as the Pleistocene or Ice Age, the story of these migrants is available at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, where visitors can learn about their unique languages and cultures. Visitors may also visit the Chaco Culture World Heritage Site which provides a historical perspective of many of the journeys retraceable through our nation’s parks and historic places. Many of these locations help illuminate the civilizations that shaped the North American landscape.

The U.S. National Park Service’s All Americans’ Stories series portal is home to many stories about the first people who lived on the North American continent. In their Introduction to Indigenous Heritage series, NPS historians state, “The American Revolutionary War (1776-1783) disrupted established patterns of alliances and trade between European settlers and indigenous peoples. Fort Stanwix National Monument in New York highlights the trials the Six Nations Confederacy – comprised of the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora – endured during the war. While most members believed an alliance with the English would prevent Americans from further encroaching on their lands, the Oneida and Tuscarora threw their support behind rebelling colonists, serving as scouts, guides and even as continental soldiers. When England and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris (1783) at Fort Stanwix, neither nation made provisions for their Six Nations allies.

While the revolution brought peace and liberty for the new American republic, the Six Nations survived with a dismantled confederacy and devastated lands and villages.”
Between the American Revolutionary War time period from 1776-1783 and the late 1800s, there were numerous battles, alliances and broken treaties between Europeans and Indigenous people, including the Trail of Tears, a forced relocation of over 16,000 Cherokee people from their lands in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma. The increasingly violent clashes over land can be further explored at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Nez Perce National Historic Park, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site  and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.  

The Introduction to Indigenous Heritage further states: “After decades of violent struggle over Montana territory, the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne nations defeated Civil War hero Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s troops at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1876. The monument was once solely a commemoration of Custer and his 7th Cavalry. It now also interprets the stories of the U.S. troops and American Indian warriors, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 5.2 million people identified themselves as American Indian or Alaskan Native with just over half saying they were solely American Indian or Alaskan Native. Though numbering between 1% and 2% of the American population as a whole, the number of those reporting American Indian or Alaskan Native heritage rose 39% from the 2000 census. 

Today, Native American ways of life are simultaneously endangered and flourishing. In the article entitled Struggle and Survival: Native Ways of Life Today published in the 2020 President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, researchers stated Native American ways of life are endangered by the legacy of U.S. Indian policies that have reduced many Native people’s experience of American history to little more than the dispossession of land, resources and culture.

The vast majority of Native American languages are endangered; many have become extinct. And yet this is also a moment of profound rebirth of Native languages, cultures, traditions and life ways, as Native peoples maintain both the privacy and secrecy of important ancient rites and simultaneously adapt to changing times by creating new forms of community life and ritual.

Editor’s Note: The National American Indian Heritage Month observance has its roots in Public Law 99-471. Over several years the observance was moved to different months but in 1990 Public Law 101-343 set the monthlong observance in November. Please note that the title of this observance varies between agencies. The Department of Defense’s Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute uses the title set forth in the Public Laws, and that title is used at the beginning of this article to signify the DOD-wide observance. By Presidential Proclamation, the month is also observed as National Native American Heritage Month. In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act extending citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements that granted such status. The act was later amended to include Alaska Natives, and as such, the month is also recognized as Native American/Alaskan Native Heritage Month.