November is Native American Heritage Month, which is also the month many people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving. While it’s tempting to ignore history and focus on the benign, familiar archetypes of Pilgrims and Indians, the reality for Indigenous Peoples is far more complex. At CU Denver, Native student Queana Maher, students from the Native American Student Organization (NASO), and Professor John Ronquillo, PhD, co-chair of the university’s new Equity Task Force, discussed what Native American Heritage Month means to them.
Ronquillo, who teaches in the School of Public Affairs, researches governance and leadership within Native communities. Although he primarily identifies as Chicano, his identity is complex: “My family settled in an area with shifting borders,” he explains. “My roots are a blend of Mexican Mestizo mixed with Indigenous Peoples of Mexico and the United States,” he added. Although his great-grandfather was a Chiricahua Apache, he is unenrolled.
But growing up in Northeastern Arizona in the middle of several Native communities sparked his interest in tribal government. While he was doing his doctoral studies in public and administration policy, he came to a realization. “I noticed that a lot of the information in my field was focused on Western governments; there wasn’t much on Native American government,” he said. His own research focuses on the tribal governance and leadership in Native American, Native Hawaiian, and other Indigenous populations.
Does Native American Heritage Month Celebrate or Diminish Indigenous Communities?
Ronquillo believes that Native American Heritage Month is an important acknowledgment of the Native population in the U.S. “We’ve reclaimed the month of November as Native American Heritage Month,” he said. “I’m glad we’re paying tribute to the Native Americans who’ve come before us who were the originators of society on this continent.”
He likens it to Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month. “These are important in helping us acknowledge the great diversity that exists in this country,” he said. CU Denver pre-nursing student Queana Maher, citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe located in both South and North Dakota, agrees with Ronquillo. “Having this month provides opportunities such as this interview as a way to bring more awareness to the First Nation’s people of the United States. During this month, I think those who are not familiar with the culture should reach out to either a Native they know or to try to educate themselves about the First Nations people,” she said.
The university’s Native American Student Organization holds a different view. “Every month is ‘Native American Heritage Month,’” NASO said. NASO’s communal statement explains: “Indigenous people are proud to be Indigenous every day, and we recognize our ancestors and histories every day. Being Indigenous is a constant act … It does not matter if it’s Indigenous Peoples Day or Native American Heritage Month, we honor and recognize our ancestors, communities, and histories every day.”
However, the students did emphasize the importance of history, which is, ideally, a topic of discussion during Native American Heritage Month. “What is most important when it comes to Indigenous peoples and our histories is to be completely honest and remove the bias of the invader,” NASO said. “You are always on the land of Tribal Nations … Accurate history of Indigenous peoples needs to be taught from a young age to help combat the harmful misinformation and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples—Indigenous erasure is a major issue and it needs to be addressed proactively.”
The Problem with Pilgrims and Indians
This reexamination of American history should include Thanksgiving. “The traditional narrative of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock was never woven into my own family’s acknowledgment of what Thanksgiving is,” Ronquillo said. Personally, he views the holiday as an opportunity to get together as a family, although he emphasizes that “the traditional Thanksgiving narrative is not accurate; it’s a fabulistic story that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people in Indian country.”
Maher also stresses that the holiday is a time to reevaluate history: “‘Thanksgiving’ is a grieving time for many Natives because of the various massacres that occurred exactly around this time frame.” For example, she points to Colorado’s Sand-Creek massacre on Nov. 29, 1864, when 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal people were killed, including 115 women and children. “I think it is important that Colorado’s communities acknowledge this part of American Indian history during this month, and Native American Heritage Month is a perfect time to do so,” she added.
NASO views Thanksgiving more critically: “We believe ThanksTAKING and the way that our educational systems and societies choose to recount that history is racist and inaccurate. ThanksTAKING for Indigenous people serves as another reminder of the genocide, kidnapping, rape, and torture that Indigenous peoples endured post-contact with European invaders.” The students added, “We encourage all people to familiarize themselves with Wampanoag history to understand the historical context of what is considered a ‘holiday.’”
Maher would like American history curriculum to go beyond a cursory introduction to Native Peoples. “American Indian history starts before Christopher Columbus’ exploitation and that American Indian history is American history,” she said. She’d also like an Indigenous Peoples class to be part of the K12 core curriculum: “If American Indian children have to learn about American history, then I think it is important that non-Natives should learn about American Indian history.”
One thing is certain about November and its various national events: people need to be willing to communicate about what these holidays commemorate and why. “These are difficult conversations to have,” Ronquillo said, “but they are necessary so we can do our best to acknowledge the contributions of these communities.”