Honoring the contributions of Native Americans

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- November is Native American Heritage Month. It is a time to celebrate, honor and recognize the significant contributions American Indians and Alaska Natives have made to our country.

Native American Heritage Month began as just a single day of recognition. On Sept. 28, 1915, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, Congress of the American Indian Association president and an Arapahoe Indian, issued a proclamation declaring the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. This proclamation also contained the first appeal to recognize Native Americans as American citizens. More than 70 years later in 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National Indian Heritage Month. Similar proclamations, under varying names, including Native American Heritage Month, have been issued each year since 1994.

Native American tribes are recognized as government agencies at two levels: federal and state. According to the South Carolina Department of Archives, tribal governments are viewed by the federal government as equal in power to state governments, and have the right to tax, make and enforce laws, and regulate certain activities such as hunting. The Catawba Indian Nation is the only federally-recognized Native American tribe in South Carolina.

The state level of recognition gives tribal governments the same rights as county governments. There are nine state-recognized Native American tribes in South Carolina including the Beaver Creek Indians, the Waccamaw Indian People, and the Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians.

One purpose of Native American Heritage Month is to raise awareness of the diversity within the Native American community. A common mistake many people make is to categorize Native Americans as one group of people. Forced relocation due to westward migration of settlers in the early days of our nation caused many tribes to cohabitate with others who were previously seen as enemies. Despite their relatively small numbers, Native Americans vary greatly in terms of their language, clothing, lifestyle, religion, and fighting styles.

Native American Heritage Month also serves as a platform to shed light on the challenges Native Americans face and the sacrifices they have made. Many Native Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving Day because many view the holiday as a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people. Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to pay tribute to a National Day of Mourning at noon on Thanksgiving Day.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan resolution redesignating November as National Native American Heritage Month, calling upon all Americans to commemorate the occasion with appropriate programs and activities such as trying a Native American dish or learning about the Wampanoag tribe’s Thanksgiving traditions. The Wampanoag tribe, along with the infamous Squanto, helped the pilgrims grow corn, cultivate the land, and survive in the area we now call Massachusetts.

Native Americans have made numerous contributions to American society and have discovered a plethora of innovations such as vanilla, syringes, chewing gum, chocolate and popcorn. Native Americans are also credited with the invention of baby bottle nipples and infant formula. Furthermore, the details of the Iroquois democratic system were so impressive to Benjamin Franklin that he invited Iroquois representatives to Albany, N.Y. to explain their system to a delegation that developed the Albany Plan of Union. This document later served as a model for the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States.

Let us take time this holiday season to reflect on the contributions and sacrifices made by Native Americans. Though not all of us celebrate Thanksgiving, we should all be thankful for the first Americans.