Spotlight: Native American Heritage Month

November 4, 2022

By a Biometrica staffer

Nov. 1 marks the start of Native American Heritage Month, an annual celebration to honor the traditions, culture, history, and contributions of American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) to the country. It’s a celebration, dating back to 1916, and one that’s close to our hearts here at Biometrica. In fact, Biometrica, Native Search Solutions (NSS) and Native American Fatherhood & Families Association (NAFFA) are working together to help end the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) through our Fusion Center in Mesa, Arizona.

In the rest of this piece, we trace a brief history of the celebration, look at a few ways we can explore observing Native American Heritage Month this year, and give you an overview of current events that are of critical importance to the wellbeing of the community, including the MMIP crisis and violent crime.

The Roots Of The Celebration

The history of Native American Heritage Month can be traced back to 1915. Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker, a Cattaraugus Seneca Indian was an early proponent of setting aside a day for the “First Americans,” according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Dr. Parker was a historian, anthropologist, and author from New York state and founded many American Indian rights organizations such as the Society of American Indians and the National Congress of American Indians, says Native News Online.

He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to designate a day to celebrate the “First Americans” from 1912-1915. It was in 1915 that the plan was formally approved at the annual Congress of the American Indian Association, held at Lawrence, Kansas. After the annual Congress, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapaho Indian minister and the president of the association, declared the second Saturday of each May as an “American Indian Day.”

But, there’s another key event that must be mentioned while talking about the history of Native American Heritage Month. A year before Rev. Coolidge’s declaration, Rev. Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Tribe citizen, rode from state to state on his horse seeking approval for the celebration of a day in honor of indigenous people. He presented the endorsements of 24 governors to the White House in 1915.

The first American Indian Day was observed on the second Saturday in May 1916. In 1976, Jerry C. Elliott (Osage-Cherokee) authored the Congressional legislation for the first Native American Awareness Week, per Native News Online. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution designating the month of November “National American Indian Heritage Month.”  Proclamations have been issued each year since 1994, Native News Online adds.

“Congress ultimately chose November as the month to honor Native Americans since the month concludes their traditional harvest season and generally is a time of celebration and giving thanks,” according to a SAMHSA blog from the Public Health Advisor Office of Tribal Affairs.

What’s Happening This Year

As of 2021, there were 574 federally recognized Tribes in the United States. Per Native News Online, the nation’s American Indian and Alaskan Native population in 2020 was 3.7 million. This population group identifies as AI/AN only and does not identify with any other race.

The SAMHSA blog post said Tribal citizens constitute about 2.5% of the total U.S. population. There were also 120,994 single-race American Indian and Alaska Native veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces in 2021.

Native American Heritage Month, as we mentioned earlier, is a time to reflect, recognize, and learn about indigenous people and their history. One of the ways to do it is to take part in various events being organized around the country.

For instance, the Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of the American Indian) has a Native Cinema Showcase, Procession and Dedication Ceremony to celebrate Native Veterans, events honoring Native arts, culture, food, online exhibitions, and weekend celebrations.

The National Park Service is conducting cultural demonstrations, speeches, walking tours, pop-up programs, and holding indigenous games. The Library of Congress has a couple of Native storytelling events.

Another to take part in the month-long celebration online could be by visiting websites like Native Land Digital’s. It’s an indigenous-led nonprofit based in Canada that has put together a searchable map of Native territories, languages and treaties, an NPR article says. A user can click on labels across the map to see which indigenous peoples lived where.

Violent Crime & MMIP

While Native American Heritage Month is a time for celebration, it’s equally important to pause and take stock of challenges that the community faces. Two of the biggest, and grave, challenges indigenous persons face in the United States is the higher rate of violent crimes committed against them, and the MMIP crisis.

As the BIA website puts it: “For decades, Native American and Alaska Native communities have struggled with high rates of assault, abduction, and murder of women.” Victimization rates of indigenous people are much higher for rape, murder and violent crime.

According to the BIA, approximately 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) throughout the U.S. and around 2,700 cases of Murder and Nonnegligent Homicide Offenses have been reported to the Federal Government’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. In total, there are about 4,200 missing and murdered cases that have gone unsolved, per BIA estimates.

Even just a few months ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Deputy Director reiterated this by saying indigenous people face some of the “country’s highest rates of violence and combating that is among the most important and highest priority work we do together with you, in the Bureau.”

This month last year, we at Biometrica wrote about the other serious challenge the indigenous communities face: MMIP. It was last November that President Joe Biden’s administration acknowledged through an executive order that the MMIP crisis is a public safety epidemic demanding urgent action. In March, the Biden administration also announced $562.1 million for Public Safety and Justice operations as part of the 2023 budget.

These twin challenges of MMIP and high rates of violent crime make Native Americans, who already carry the trauma and scars of past injustice done to them, even more vulnerable to exploitation. It further underscores the importance of celebrations like the Native American Heritage Month, which, in turn, creates an opportunity to take much-needed steps towards correcting historic crimes committed against indigenous communities.

At Biometrica, we’ve written several pieces that attempt to get to the heart of public safety and other challenges that indigenous communities face. Here are a few select ones that we believe are worth re-reading as we observe Native American Heritage Month: