Native American Heritage: Revising an American Legacy

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“It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.” - James Baldwin

*The term Indigenous People is used throughout this article to refer to people who existed in the Western Hemisphere prior to 1492. Native Americans are Indigenous People that are native to what became The United States of America. Throughout this article, Native is used as shorthand for Native American.

November marks Native American Heritage Month-- the month when America celebrates the history and legacy of the Native people. Native American communities have names, stories, and struggles that, when highlighted and celebrated, allow those honoring to redefine, and perhaps redeem humanity. As a part of this celebration, it’s important to bring awareness to the experiences and injustices that continue to impact Native American people. Particularly, it’s necessary to highlight Native people’s resistance to the ongoing threats to their land, water and people. Celebrating the ways in which Native Americans have resisted domination allows us to better understand their perseverance and what that means to our collective humanity. This begins by first unraveling the myth of Christopher Columbus discovering America.

Christopher Columbus never set foot on what became the United States of America. However, his voyage to the Americas created a genocidal legacy that devalued humanity through acts that decimated entire civilizations of Indigenous People. Perpetuating the myth of discovery through celebration also perpetuates the devaluation and invisibility that define the contemporary experiences of Native Americans. Taking the time to address the historical fallacy of discovery allows us to better understand their survival, and allows us to celebrate one of our nation’s greatest treasures: resistance. As the nation comes together to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, it is important to participate in the Native American legacy of resistance.

Resistance is an action that taps into a human tradition of righting the wrongs of our past to build a better future. Columbus’ voyages began a long history of settler colonialism that introduced the greatest genocide ever known in this region. Native Americans have faced broken treaties, savage physical violence of all imaginable types, and genocide. Today, they are fighting for their water and land rights, federal recognition, the Missing and Murdered Indigneous Women #MMIW, and cultural survival. Connecting the past to a contemporary struggle helps protect a future where what is made invisible is now seen and experienced as a collective. The celebration of Native American Heritage should reflect a commitment to joining a struggle where silence is violence.

Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity for companies to align awareness and action with their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. The first step in promoting Native American Heritage is to deconstruct the reverence of notorious historical figures and practices. Companies can do this by affirming commitment to actions that are aligned with Native American resistance. Dedicating time and resources to celebrating resistance indicates an effort to reprioritize a people and their legacy against struggles for dignity and self-determination. Celebrating Native American Heritage in this way will provide insight that will help companies revise harmful myths and behaviors that may negatively impact their workspaces. The below recommendations are meant to inspire progressive and innovative actions to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. We believe that the most important step

Indigenous People’s Day

Renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day on future company calendars is an act that is simple in nature, but with momentous impact. The name change taps into a human tradition of righting the wrongs of our past to build a better future. The Indigenous community is an international community of people that existed since before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. This community has since resisted colonialism, genocide, and other forms of violence that have occured since. A simple change on your company calendar affirms the importance of support towards a collective struggle for human dignity and is a small act that humanizes a collective experience of Native American experiences, perspectives, and struggles.

Recruitment and Community Outreach

Post jobs, internships and build relationships with Native serving organizations and in places where Native Americans are over-represented. This includes Native American schools, reservations, and events. It is important to show up to these spaces and meet with people on the ground to request how you can support their needs. Actions that follow this request should attempt to remove the onus of change from Native American communities while simultaneously building consensus with every activity that follows. Here are some organizations to consider:

Organizational Alignment

Visit the following links and leverage your partnerships and resources to align activities in solidarity with resistance:

Relationship Building

Build relationships with organizations that build community and provide services for Native people. This includes activist, non-profit, and corporate entities that serve the needs of Native communities and can be as simple as sharing digital space and concerns to collaborating in direct action.

Native American Land Acknowledgement

Locate the names of Native American groups that once (or currently) existed in the location of the physical building that your organization now occupies. Use this LINK to help identify Native American nations and:

  1. Acknowledge that your organization occupies stolen land,
  2. State the name of the people(s) that currently exist or once existed where you are
  3. Identify ways that you are committed to action alongside Native resistance.

Please use this LINK to understand more about Native American Land Acknowledgements.

Empathy Programming

Create spaces of learning that allow participants to challenge the universal acceptance of myths that harm Native American people. Use those spaces to build capacity around understanding the lived experiences, struggles, and perspectives of Native American people. It is important to do so without defensiveness, “what abouts”, and suggestions that come in the form of impositions of what people should be doing for themselves. Validate the perspectives and experiences that have inspired resistance, affirm solidarity, and commit to action as if your company and/or employees have something at stake.

Leverage Digital Space(s) For Change

Identify social media trends and hashtags that align with Native American struggles similar to #MMIW, #WaterProtectors, and #LandDefenders. After identifying, find ways to align Native Heritage Month company messaging, perspectives, and action with your organization's vision and mission. Use formal social media channels to publicly commit to tangible solidarity efforts as an opportunity to build a partnership with individuals and organizations that work toward sustainable change.

Political and corporate decisions that value profit over people continue to thread Columbus’ legacy into contemporary American practices. Learning more about contemporary Native American struggles will allow companies to empathize with those and related struggles that are relevant to companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. In this case, unraveling the myth of Columbus’ discovery can initiate a process of pulling the thread of bias to unravel injustices in both the past and present. Resistance allows companies to identify business objectives that encourage sustainability by building relationships and resources never before imagined.

Celebrating Native Heritage Month gives life to the people and experiences that we celebrate.

This piece is part of a series from Jopwell Insights—Jopwell’s research and analytics team that brings data and informed perspectives to your inbox. Have topics you'd like us to cover? Drop us an email at [email protected]

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