Native American Heritage Month takes place over the course of November and is meant to honor the important involvement of Native Americans in the building of the United States, as well as the incredible diversity of Native American cultures and stories.
The custom has its origins in a temporary “American Indian Day” created by the Boy Scouts in the early 20th century, owing to the persistent persuasion of a Seneca Indian museum director named Dr. Arthur Parker. The first official American Indian day in the United States was announced by the Governor of New York in May 1916; however, this was inconsistent with other states, which enacted commemorations in September. Native American Heritage Month was officially approved in November 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, and similar proclamations have been signed since 1994. There is also considerable debate about whether Columbus Day in October should be renamed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, given the explorer’s controversial legacy.
Around 2.9% of the U.S population, or 9.7 million people, identify as Native American; over 500 tribes are federally recognized. States such as Alaska and Oklahoma have larger proportions of their population being Native American, at 19.7% and 13.4% respectively. Notably, New Jersey has the lowest national percentage of Native Americans, clocking in at only 0.67%. The interesting thing is that in 2010, when the last census took place, the population of Native Americans numbered around 5.2 million people, only around half of what it is today. This unprecedented growth of the percentage of the population has many causes behind it, but a key factor is the willingness of multiracial individuals to identify with a parent’s culture as well as the general trend of Americans beginning to embrace their ethnic backgrounds. Considering these patterns, Native American Heritage Month will only become more significant as a matter of recognition and validation for an increasing portion of America.
Although New Jersey is not a state with a large Native American population, commemorating Native American Heritage Month is a wonderful way to learn about the history of the area and its inhabitants. In fact, the low proportion of Native American residents in New Jersey means that students may not be familiar with related stories and current news. Therefore, NJIT should embrace this opportunity for the campus community to learn about Native American history. This year, activities and awareness were somewhat minimal, but there are plenty of ways that can change. A few examples include:
- Setting up a weekly-changing board for the month featuring some of Native Americans’ extensive contributions to the United States. Native American code talkers, indigenous women’s key involvement in the suffrage movement and the governments that inspired our own democracy are only some of the compelling stories that NJIT students could appreciate. ‘
- Hosting discussions with leading activists and foundations. Recently, NJIT’s Murray Center hosted a successful colloquium with Rhiana Gunn-Wright, an architect of the Green New Deal. NJIT students and faculty were involved and were able to see new perspectives after a lively discussion. Similar conversations with contemporary Native American activists would help students understand today’s challenges and developments.
- Featuring books and artwork by Native American artists or about indigenous experiences at the Murray Center for the month of November. The center featured several documentaries about little-known pieces of Native American history through their newsletter, which could be extended into other creative mediums.
NJIT’s diversity is one of its strengths; everyone brings something different to the table. There are several organizations dedicated to different ethnicities, nationalities and religions, which makes it easy and fun to learn about different traditions. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month would build on that and aid students in becoming future civic-minded professionals.