The relevance of American Indian Heritage Month

As north winds whip across the prairies and mountains, we should expect to hear more conversational gusts about Native people as we reach the midway peak of American Indian Heritage Month.

Or will we?

It reminds me of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People that ended in 2004, a 10-year time frame to recognize the rights of the world’s 370 million indigenous people.

Few people knew the decade existed.

In order to give it the attention it deserved, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples adopted a second decade for indigenous peoples in 2005. Before the second decade ended, forum members set a goal of having the U.N. General Assembly adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For more than 25 years, indigenous peoples lobbied for the declaration. In September 2007, 143 member nations of the General Assembly finally adopted it. While the day marked a significant victory for indigenous groups worldwide, four countries voted against the declaration, including the United States.

As we reach mid-November, it’s not a big surprise that American Indian Heritage Month seems to have as much relevance on the national public agenda as a fly has to a herd of buffalo.

The inattention is not for lack of importance, given that Native people are the only group in the United States with a unique political relationship with the federal government based on legally binding treaty agreements.

“It was wrong to not support the declaration, we urge them to reconsider and sign off on it,” John Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said on Wednesday. “We’re talking about the rights of peoples, not so much indigenous peoples but the rights of people. If they don’t believe that in their heart, then what are they to believe? And what is the general population of America to believe?”

The NCAI is the largest organization of tribal governments in the United States. And Garcia poses a good question.

Without the United States’ support for the declaration, it’s easier for the American public to diminish the collective rights of American Indian peoples, who have the right to retain language, land and culture, and pursue education and live healthy lives imbued with a strong tribal identity.

Our Native youth particularly deserve recognition in a country that typically chooses to ignore them. Who are they if no one knows they exist?

On Sunday, the Kyi-Yo Native American Student Association will host a public event on the University of Montana campus. The students want to teach non-Natives about the meaning of powwows. Coordinator Denise Grant said many non-Native local community members don’t know what happens at a powwow. And many feel the cultural events are off limits to them.

That’s not true.

First of all, if organizers charge an admission fee – like the Kyi-Yo group does at its annual spring university powwow – then the chances are pretty high the event can be categorized as entertainment. Anyone can attend. The group’s Sunday powwow cultural night seems like a basic Indian 101 activity. But it’s a meaningful step as the students reach out and share information about their world.

American Indian Heritage Month appears to be slipping away with little national, regional or local fanfare.

“It’s like America doesn’t want to have a memory,” said Julie Cajune, a Salish educator from the Flathead Reservation. “America chooses to have amnesia. What happens when a country chooses to not remember? It’s a denial of identity.”

Cajune’s comments were used in a Native American Heritage Day video made for the state of Montana’s Indian Education Office Web site. It can be viewed at www.opi.mt.gov/streamer/IHD/

The Montana Office of Public Instruction has been compiling and distributing contemporary and historical information about Native people, much of it is posted on the Indian education Web site.

“There needs to be a broadening of public knowledge,” said Garcia. “We haven’t taken advantage of the fact that we can do a lot more, rather than just leave it to chance. As the nation is moving in a new direction with the new administration, it’s prime time we step up to the plate.”

While Native perspectives have historically suffered in the daily discourse, we can easily take advantage of platforms that allow us to do it more easily, such as November’s American Indian Heritage Month.

• Reach reporter Jodi Rave at jodi.rave@lee.net or 1-800-366-7186.

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