November is National Native American Heritage Month, but how much does the average person actually know about Native Americans today? With much of their history being glossed over (or given a footnote as the people who welcomed pilgrims at Thanksgiving), the unfortunate reality is that many Americans know very little about the people whose land we currently live on. To honor Native American Heritage Month, let’s shine a light on three contemporary Native American changemakers who are making an impact within the Native American diaspora today.
Although he is most known for his portrayal of William "Spirit" Knifeman in Reservation Dogs, Dallas Goldtooth has spent decades working as an activist following the footsteps of his father, environmental activist and Indigenous rights leader Tom B.K. Goldtooth. He leads the Keep It in the Ground Campaign of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), advocating for water protection against the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Along with his advocacy work, he promotes Native heritage as a Dakota cultural/language teacher and non-violent direct action trainer teaching others how to peacefully protest for Indigenous rights. Goldtooth combined his passions for activism and performance art by co-founding the 1491s, an Indigenous comedy group whose work depicts modern Native American life through sketch comedy.
Academic, writer, and activist Adrienne Keene is passionate about reframing how the world sees contemporary Native cultures. In 2010, she founded Native Appropriations, a blog analyzing contemporary Indigenous issues – from the way that Indigenous peoples are represented in popular culture to covering issues of cultural appropriation in fashion and music and stereotyping in film and other media. Through social media and her speaking engagements, Keene’s writing has drawn notice for commentary on topics including Native American mascots, college access for Native students, and racist Halloween costumes.
Besides writing, she is currently an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University teaching courses on Indigenous education, Native representations, and Native American studies. As a lifelong academic, her research areas include college access, transition, and persistence for Native and Indigenous students. Along with fellow Indigenous educator and photographer Matika Wilbur, Keene co-hosts the All My Relations podcast which explores what it means to be a contemporary Native and Indigenous person in all its complexities.
An acclaimed artist working with sculptures and mixed media, Jeffrey Gibson’s art heavily utilizes traditional Indigenous handcraft techniques like basket weaving, glass beading, bark biting, and quill work. His work celebrates and fuses elements of Native heritage like powwow regalia and Iroquois whimsies with references to contemporary club culture, queer theory, and urban utopian imagery. Gibson utilizes these themes, materials, and techniques to highlight overlooked narratives of contemporary resistance, while embracing the presence of historically marginalized identities. In recognition of his wide-ranging, inclusive and critical approach to art-making, the US State Department has selected Gibson to represent the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale. He will be the first Indigenous artist to have a solo exhibition in the US Pavilion at the prestigious international art event.
This is only a snippet of the powerful and important work Native Americans are making on our culture and society today – you can learn more about their history and celebrate Native American Heritage by doing the following: