November is Native American Heritage Month and the day after the fourth Thursday – when Thanking Day is observed in the United States – is Native American Heritage Day. The first effort to establish a Native American Day began over a century ago. In 1911, Dr. Arthur Caswell (Gawasco Waneh), a Cattaraugus Seneca, director of the Rochester Museum of New York (now the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences) was one of the earliest advocates of creating a day to honor Native Americans. He was an anthropologist, historian, and author. His great-uncle was Brigadier General Ely S. Parker, General Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary during the Civil War and the first Native American to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior.
Dr. Parker founded several Native American rights organizations, including the Society of American Indians (SAI) in 1911 and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944, and advocated for Native Americans to receive U.S. citizenship. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to honor “First Americans,” for a day which they did only from 1912 to 1915.
In the spring of 1914, Reverend Red Fox James, also known as Red Fox Skiukusha, another Native American rights advocate, rode 4,000-miles on horseback to Washington, D.C., to petition the president for an “Indian Day.” The next year, he travelled on horseback from state to state seeking gubernatorial support for Native Americans to receive U.S. citizenship. 24 governors endorsed his petition, which he presented tot he White House on December 14, 1915.
That year, the Congress of American Indian Association met in Lawrence, Kansas and directed the president Reverend Sherman Coolidge (1862-1932), an Arapaho minister and one of the SAI founders, to call upon the nation to proclaim a day to honor Native Americans. On September 18, 1915, he issued a proclamation declaring the second Saturday of each May as “American Indian Day” and appealing for U.S. citizenship for American Indians.
The first time that “American Indian Day” was observed may have been in 1916 when the governor of New York declared the second Saturday in May as American Indian Day. Several states celebrated American Indian Day on the fourth Friday in September, including the Illinois state legislature in 1919. That year, Red Fox Skiukusha petitioned Washington state to designate the fourth Saturday in September as an “Indian holiday.” However, these efforts were unsuccessful.
It was not until 1924 that Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, allowing Native Americans born in the United States, who were not covered by previous treaties or federal agreements to become citizens. The act was later amended to include Native Alaskans.
It would take several decades before Native American Day became more widespread. In 1968, California Governor Ronald Reagan designated the fourth Friday in September as American Indian Day, but it was not until 1998 that the California State Assembly enacted legislation making Native American Day as an official state holiday. In 1976, the country’s bicentennial year, Congress approved Senate Joint Resolution 209 authorizing President Ford to proclaim October 10-6 as “Native American Awareness Week” and he issued his presidential proclamation on October 8. Since 1976 Congress and the President have observed a day, week, or month, to honor Native American and Native Alaskans. In 2009, the Friday after Thanksgiving Day became “Native American Heritage Day.” In 1977, the holiday became inter nation when the United Nations sponsored the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas.
Proclamations celebrating Native American history and people have changed in name, number of days, dates, and length of the observance. President Ford designated May 13, 1983 as “American Indian Day” in 1983 and November 23-30, 1986 as “American Indian Week” before moving it to November 22-28, 1987 in 1987, and finally to September 23-30 in1988. President George H. W. Bush moved the observance again, issuing a proclamation on December 5, 1989, designating December 3-9, 1989 as “National American Indian Heritage Week” before declaring November as “National American Indian Heritage Month” in 1990. Finally, President Bush declared in 1991 that November would be “American Indian Heritage Month.”
In 1992, President Bush designated 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas, as the “Year of the American Indian” and declared that November as “National American Indian Heritage Month” which it is was called until 2009, when President Obama designated November as “National Native American Heritage Month.” In 2008, Congress designated the day after Thanksgiving, November 28, as “Native American Heritage Day.”
While there is no national theme, federal departments and agencies are allowed to create their own themes. Some of the themes that the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior have used include: “Tribal Diversity: Weaving Together Our Traditions” (2006), “Tribes Facing Challenges: In Unity, Transforming Hope into Strengths” (2008), and “Life is Sacred – Celebrate Healthy Native Communities” (2010).
Some cities and state governments have gone further. The South Dakota state legislature passed a bill in 1989 proclaiming 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” between the state’s Native American and White citizens. As a result, South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson designated Columbus Day as the state’s American Indian Day, making it a state-sanctioned holiday. Los Angeles, California voted in August 2017 to ‘dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of indigenous peoples.’
On Election Day 2018 (November 6), Democrats Sharice Davids of Kansas, a member of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation tribe and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, became the first Native American women elected to Congress. Davids, a lesbian, made history for being the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas in Congress. Native Americans of New Mexico were the last to be enfranchised in 1962, nearly forty years after the Indian Citizenship Act. Davids and Haaland join Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin in Congress.