I recently learned that November is Native American Heritage Month. (Thank you, James.) This declaration originated over 100 years ago as a day of recognition for the significant contributions Native Americans have made to our nation. President George H. W. Bush expanded it into a month-long celebration by approving a joint resolution of Congress, establishing November 1990 as the first National Native American Heritage month. This practice has continued since then, most recently with President Trump issuing a similar proclamation on October 30, 2020.
Such recognition is worthy, although Native Americans have not always received the best treatment from America. In his book, The People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes the “Trail of Tears” – the forced relocation of Indians from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas to the west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory. These relocations were authorized and enforced by our government officials (state and local militias) following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The “Trail of Tears” term stems from the suffering from exposure, disease, and starvation the Indians experienced while en route to their newly designated reserve. Thousands died before reaching their destinations or shortly after from disease.
November is also the month we celebrate Thanksgiving. Historically, our schools taught us the first Thanksgiving was a celebration between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims – living together and being welcomed into a new world. Unfortunately, there are significant historical errors in that story. Some even characterize it as a myth designed to allow “white colonists” to feel good about our tainted history with the Native Americans.
But regardless of that history, we do celebrate Thanksgiving every year and enjoy the opportunity to gather with family and friends and reflect on our blessings. This year will be a bit different because of the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control has recommended people not travel to celebrate Thanksgiving and recommends against large gatherings. These steps make sense, but they are unfortunate costs in dealing with a disease that is currently out of control.
Returning to the contributions Native Americans have made, there are many important lessons we can learn from the Native Americans – one of which is how to live with the land in contrast to abusing the land. The book, The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of essays by writer and philosopher, Wendell Berry, includes an enlightening example of this distinction. He describes the early settlers of Kentucky, his home, building a road between two settlements that would facilitate commerce. The road construction involved significant destruction of the land, timber, wildlife, etc., termed the “cost of progress”. In contrast, the Native Americans of that time simply used a path through the woods – possibly for hundreds or more years – to accomplish the same thing – without all the destruction of the environment. Berry describes this as the difference between exploitation and nurture.
Another illustration of how the colonists treated the Kentucky landscape is contained in John Prine’s song, Paradise. Here are some of the lyrics:
When I was a child, my family would travel / Down to Western Kentucky, where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town, that’s often remembered / So many times, that my memories are worn
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away…..
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel / And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken / Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
Randy Newman’s song, The Great Nations of Europe, provides yet another example of how the history we were all taught in school regarding Western Civilization may have been a bit more “rosy” than what actually occurred.
Looking back at the history of our nation can be at times painful. But they say, you can’t get better until you acknowledge what you’ve been doing wrong. Our constitution offers us, “we the people”, the opportunity to correct things we’ve been doing wrong. That’s a benefit that many other countries do not enjoy. If our heart is in the right place, we can make our country continue to evolve into that more perfect union. Celebrating the contributions of Native Americans – particularly how they nurture our lands – is one step in the right direction. Our planet could use a bit more nurturing and a little less exploitation.
President-Elect Biden has pledged to appoint members of his administration to “look like America“. If he were to appoint a Native American to a prominent position in the his administration, say as Interior Secretary, it would be a first, and not only a reflection of the diversity within our country, but also a powerful symbol of the importance of nurturing our land.
One more thing. If you’re interested in a movie after your Thanksgiving dinner, I recommend Dances With Wolves. (Thank you George & Rosann.)