Updated: Feb 5
"I didn’t know you still existed!”
“Wow--you’re native? That’s cool. Do you, like, live in a tipi?”
“You can’t be Native American, because I’ve never heard of your tribe.”
“You don’t look Native American, you don’t have the high cheek bones or straight black hair.”
“When did you become Native?”
“Are you sure your people didn’t just kill them [the Lost Colony]?”
“What are you?”
“But how much Indian blood do you really have?”
“My great-grandma was a Cherokee princess!”
These are just some of the things that have been said to me over the years when people have found out I’m Native American or I’ve talked about my tribe and our history. What’s most striking about these comments is that they are most often rooted in surprise. The idea of Indigenous people living in the current world (or not on a reservation) is surprising to many people. They haven’t even considered that Indigenous people are not only of the past, but also the present. The next round of questions that usually surface is a measure of Indigenousness, often conflicting with people’s view of what they think an Indigenous person looks like based on movies.
But what does this mean to Indigenous people? It means existing in a world that has all but forgotten you, regulating your people and history to a few paragraphs in white-washed history books. It means fighting to keep your cultural identity in a culture that rewards appropriating to dominate culture. It means saying, “We’re still here!” It means being strong and resilient.
This is why we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
What is Indigenous Peoples Day?
Indigenous Peoples Day is the second Monday in October, when we set aside celebrating Columbus (who is not only credited with being the father of the transatlantic slave trade, sex trafficker, and greedy colonizer, but also a marker in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas) to honor and celebrate the myriad of tribes, traditions, and histories of Indigenous people in the United States.
How can you as a mom against racism honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples?
Recognize that Native Americans are not a monolith. There are 574 federally recognized tribes and about 245 tribes petitioning for federal recognition in the United States. Each tribe has its own culture, history, and practices. Tribes may have similarities in their histories, customs, or languages, but aren’t the same. Consider how different European countries are--no one would say an Italian and a Scandivian have the same culture and history. Do they share some similarities? Yes, but they are not interchangeable. The same is true of Native Americans--the Navajo and Powhatan may share overarching similarities, but they are not the same. We are not a monolith.
Learn about the tribe(s) in your area.
I’ve been in educator groups where people are requesting help to study Native Americans and they don’t know where to begin. Start locally. Who are the Indigenous people where you live? If you think there are none, think again. Google, then check out this map of tribal land to see what native land you live on.
Learn the tribe’s history. How did their culture change with first contact? What language do they speak? (Remember, not all Indigenous people were able to keep their languages alive after European colonizers settled.) What leaders and/or figures are important to their history? (My tribe has its own Robin Hood and it’s a story nearly every Lumbee will tell you if they get the chance.) What past issues did the tribe face?
What current issues does the tribe face? What are some issues tribes in your region facing? Consider the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, DAPL, how Covid-19 is affecting Native American communities, or how Native American women are 10 times more likely than other groups to be murdered or go missing (#mmiw).
Talk to Native American’s you know. Ask them if they’d be willing to share their experiences about being indigenous today, as well as their tribal history. Most native peoples love to share about their tribe. It’s a source of pride that many are eager to share.
Read more on Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous History: