November Welcomes Native American Heritage Month


But Can We Really Celebrate?

Native American Heritage Month has been officially celebrated—at least as an idea–for nearly 30 years.

The first official announcement occurred when President George Herbert Walker Bush declared November as National Native American Heritage Month in 1990.

Note that 1990 is the same year President Bush signed the landmark Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to protect American Indian artifacts, objects and bones.

The 1990 law—NAGRPA—has met mixed reviews: not in theory, but in practice.

For example, the law failed to support Native American claims that a 9000-year-old skeleton should be returned to tribes.

What that means is that a federal law was enacted to help stem the tide of grave robbing and skull-collecting of Indian peoples.

The law was signed for an explicit purpose: to guarantee Indigenous bodies and artifacts would be returned their communities, tribes and relatives.

The failure of NAGPRA is documented in the case of Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton unearthed on Indigenous lands that was declared “Caucasian.”

One solo anthropologist held a press conference after the skeleton was uncovered, declaring that the skull didn’t look like modern Indians.

So: maybe he isn’t Indigenous, the anthropologist mused.

Local tribes were not amused.

Tribes asked the courts to honor NAGPRA and return the bones.

But the court rejected tribal claims and ignored NAGPRA, allowing scientists to study the bones without permission from its relatives.

For nearly two decades, Native American arguments—legal, ethical and moral–were ignored.

Ignored, that is, until Danish scientists found DNA linkages with a local tribe in Washington and Kennewick Man.

The skeleton was finally returned to his brethren, 20 years after being pulled from a watery grave in the Columbia River and given to scientists for study.

Day by day, and year by year, Indigenous concerns are snubbed, despite lip-service given to American Indians by politicians speaking hollow words.

For example, the current “president” gathered World War II code-talkers for a photo opportunity last November during Native American Heritage Month.

The Head Deplorable posed for pictures with Navajo elders under the watchful gaze of Andrew Jackson.

How appropriate.

Jackson ordered the military to remove the Cherokee from their Georgia homelands after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting Cherokee lands from settlers, ruling the Indigenous Nation was sovereign.

Jackson, and his successor, Martin Van Buren, sent troops to Georgia to forcibly remove the remaining Cherokee (and other Native peoples) in 1837.

Today’s administration follows suit from former presidents who have defied laws and opened access to Native resources.

The current deplorables have opened sacred areas to mining and petroleum interests, despite Federal laws like NAGPRA designed protect Indian artifacts and resources.

Adding insult to injury, the “president” has turned to sorcery to quash Indian sovereignty by re-inventing racial tropes of 200 years past.

The Deplorable uses phrenological wizardry from the 1800s to frame Indians as a “race” of peoples distinct from other races.


Treaties between tribes and the U.S. government accorded Indian communities certain liberties, including the right to self-govern and to negotiate with the U.S. as sovereign nations.

The current administration hopes to crush Native sovereignty altogether by moving the argument from the political arena to a racial arena.

May I make a prediction?

As November unfolds, the Head Deplorable will be featured in a photo-opportunity heralding Native American Heritage Day.

Afterward he will return to his racial slurs of Indian people, using names like Redskin.

“I know Indians that are extremely proud of that name,” the “president” said about the slur, “Redskins.”

And he will continue to call American Indians mobsters, chiefs, squaws, and Pocahontas.

He will try to strip away our sovereignty, our rights, our land, our minerals, and divide our families.

November is hardly a month to celebrate.

Instead, I will spend November viewing the world through an Indigenous lens, reminding readers that we are still here.

Artwork from Gold, S. (2009). Worcester v. Georgia: Native American rights (Supreme Court milestones). New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.


1 November 2018












About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in alternative facts, american, american indian, bears ears, Native American Heritage Month, nativescience. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to November Welcomes Native American Heritage Month

  1. Cynthia, as my wife is Jewish and we are embedded in that community, Tuesday evening we attended a memorial for those killed in Pittsburgh. While many faith traditions and ethnicities were present and acknowledged, the handful of Natives in the large gathering were ignored, as was the condition of Native people here and around the world. This being Vermont we probably all look white and are easily overlooked, but the religious leaders who addressed the gathering know several of us and ignored us. I was reminded yet again that we are indeed easily erased. I will bring it up with them at another time, yet again, as Tuesday was a time for grief and resistance rather than confrontation. Still, I have been sad ever since.


  2. I appreciate your thoughts: they are so powerful in reminding all of us about being ghosts. Thank you for taking time to comment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s