Why Native American Heritage Month can actually be a nightmare for Native people
At the risk of sounding salty, I’m going to detail why Native American Heritage Month can be a yearly autumnal hellscape for Indigenous folks, one riddled with microaggressions, political incorrectness, and appropriative behavior that makes our ancestors stir in their “haunted burial grounds.”
A lot of this offensive behavior manifests in requests to educate non-Natives for free. My first request for free labor this month arrived promptly on November 1st. A friend warned me that one of his colleagues at the public library was planning her annual “dreamcatcher crafting activity” for the teen program. My friend connected me to this woman—we’ll call her Dreamcatcher Diane—in hopes that I might be able do an alternate, non-culturally appropriative presentation instead. I was happy to honor his request, as I’ve been a public educator for the better part of my adulthood.
My impulse was to curtly inform this woman that even I, a Native person and certified teacher, would never dare instruct anyone to make dreamcatchers in a non-Native setting. Why? Because I am Lakota, and dreamcatchers are sacred to the Ojibwe Nation. I wanted to tell her that we ought to honor the Ojibwe people’s struggle to preserve their formerly outlawed religious beliefs from appropriative practices by keeping our damn hands off them.
So I sent Dreamcatcher Diane an email. During our exchange, I was transported to November of my kindergarten year at a Catholic school. I, a member of the only Native family in a small, colonial Oregon town, was assigned to the role of Pilgrim in the Thanksgiving Day pageant. My mother, a preschool teacher at the same school, was placed in the awkward position of insisting that dressing half of the class up as “Indians” in wrinkled grocery sacks was extremely racist.
Then, I recalled each November in grade school when I’d bring my traditional regalia to class so I could show my white peers and white teachers what Native people actually wear. By necessity, my elders taught my siblings and I to be educators too early, training us to say, “We use the word ‘regalia’ and not ‘costume,’ because when you wear a costume you are pretending, and we are not pretending to be Native.” Sending their children unarmed into a racist world, one riddled with aggressive white settler bias and near complete erasure, has never been an option for my elders.
A public school curriculum that teaches Indigenous history and settler colonialism simply does not exist, you see. The Indigenous existence is completely silenced in our culture, so much so that, for a long time, I felt unjustified calling out non-Native people who bought into a history that keeps us ancient. For Natives like myself who grow up in places away from their Tribal communities, there is a horrifying lack of people speaking up and speaking out about anti-Native bias, tokenism, and racism. When we cannot depend on educated adults—teachers, librarians, publishers, producers—to amplify actual history from diverse storytellers, the truth relies on the brave but vulnerable victims of these historical misconceptions.
My fifth grade peers used to roll their eyes at me when I spoke up, and many white friends have unconsciously spouted things like, “Native Americans just don’t exist anymore,” while looking directly into my eyes.
By middle school, my fed-up parents leveraged their clout as educators in our town to host an annual Native American Awareness Day every November. My family invited elders, dancers, and artists from our Native community to my middle school. Students in sixth through eighth grades received a day-long immersive, Indigenous-centered educational experience. These guest presenters didn’t get paid, and although the program was impactful, it barely scratched the surface of Indigenous studies.
After those years, my tokenized parents and grandparents spent their entire careers reluctantly obliging colleagues’ requests for my family’s time and knowledge every November, just so that white people could get a microscopic taste of Native culture for free.
What was the alternative for them? They did not suffer through the trauma of boarding schools, battle systemic poverty, and have to spend decades practicing their spirituality in secret just to watch their own descendants be silenced by whitewashing.
Two decades later, Native folks are still bracing for Columbus Day parades, protesting sexy Indian costumes on Halloween, and volunteering our trauma for the sake of a safer social climate.
This year, we labored over white progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren putting the Cherokee Nation in political crosshairs by perpetuating the harmful myth that blood quantum proves her Native American legitimacy, all to fire back at Trump. We battled voter suppression in Indian Country, but we also elected two Indigenous Congresswomen in D.C. Laguna Pueblo Congresswoman Deb Haaland is using her platform to advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a centuries old issue plaguing Native Nations across North America. The injustice has gone largely unnoticed by mainstream culture, proving that the #MeToo movement halts in its tracks before entering tribal lands. It’s a battle to be seen as a Native in America without accurate representation in film, TV, and media. Our youth do not see themselves thrive—let alone, exist—on screen in modern situations.
That’s why I consider these dreamcatcher workshops to be microaggressive and insulting. So I volunteer my time. I try to fix it.
In our email exchange, I kindly asked Dreamcatcher Diane if the library could give me 90 minutes, a projector, and some speakers so I could talk to the teens about Indigenous history, modern Native issues, and perhaps teach the Round Dance. I told her it would be engaging and fun. “The dreamcatcher craft will take the better part of an hour,” she told me, “so you will only be allotted 15 minutes. Let me know if that will work for you.”
I took a deep breath. Another oppressive November on the books, culminating in a feast that celebrates the mass murder of our east coast Indigenous population at the hands of religious extremists, the Pilgrims.