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History of National Native American Heritage Month

Starting at the turn of the 20th Century both Native American and non-Native Americans tried to have one day a year designed to honor the contributions, achievements, sacrifices, and cultural and historical legacy of the original inhabitants of what is now the United States and their descendants: the American Indian and Alaska Native people. In 2009, that effort became a reality when Congress passed and the President signed legislation that established the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day of each year as “Native American Heritage Day.”

(The below information is from the Department of the Interior’s web site).

Honoring and Citizenship: Early Advocates

After 1900, one of the earliest proponents of a day honoring American Indians was Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker (b. 1881, d. 1955), a Cattaraugus Seneca and the director of the Rochester Museum in New York (now the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences). Dr. Parker (Gawasco Waneh) was a noted anthropologist, historian and author whose great-uncle was Brigadier General Ely S. Parker, secretary to General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and the first American Indian to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior. Dr. Parker also served as the first president of the Society for American Archaeology (1935-36).

Dr. Parker was a founder of a number of American Indian rights organizations, including the Society of American Indians (SAI) in 1911 and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944, and advocated for American Indians to be given U.S. citizenship. He was successful in persuading the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans,” which they did from 1912 to 1915.

In the spring of 1914, another Indian rights advocate, the Reverend Red Fox James (b. 1890-95, d. ?), also known as Red Fox Skiukusha, whose tribal identity is undetermined, began a 4,000-mile trek on horseback to Washington, D.C., to petition the president for an “Indian Day.” The next year, again on horseback, he traveled state-to-state seeking gubernatorial support for U.S. citizenship to be extended to American Indians. On December 14, 1915, he presented to the White House the endorsements of 24 governors. In 1919, he petitioned the state of Washington to designate the fourth Saturday in September as an “Indian holiday.”

Also in 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association, meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, directed its president, the Reverend Sherman Coolidge (1862-1932), an Arapaho minister and one of the founders of the SAI, to call upon the nation to observe a day for American Indians. On September 18, 1915, he issued a proclamation declaring the second Saturday of each May as “American Indian Day” and appealing for U.S. citizenship for American Indians.

In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act extending citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements that granted such status. The act was later amended to include Alaska Natives.

State Observances

The first time an American Indian Day was formally designated in the U.S. may have been in 1916, when the governor of New York fixed the second Saturday in May for his state’s observance. Several states celebrated the fourth Friday in September as American Indian Day. In 1919, the Illinois state legislature enacted a bill doing so. In Massachusetts, the governor issued a proclamation, in accordance with a 1935 law, naming the day that would become American Indian Day in any given year.

In 1968, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed a resolution designating the fourth Friday in September as American Indian Day. In 1998, the California State Assembly enacted legislation creating Native American Day as an official state holiday.

In 1989, the South Dakota state legislature passed a bill proclaiming 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” between the state’s American Indian and White citizens. Pursuant to that act, South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson designated Columbus Day as the state’s American Indian Day, thereby making it a state-sanctioned holiday. 

For more information about state designations for American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native American heritage observations or celebrations, contact directly the state(s) you are interested in.

1992 – The Year of the American Indian

The 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the western hemisphere in 1492 was the occasion for national and local celebrations. However, for Native people it was an occasion they could neither fully embrace nor participate in.

Congress acknowledged their concerns regarding the Columbus Quincentennial by enacting Senate Joint Resolution 217 (Pub. L. 102-188) which designated 1992 as the “Year of the American Indian.” It was signed by President George H.W. Bush on December 4, 1991. Pursuant to that act, President Bush issued on March 2, 1992, Proclamation 6407 announcing 1992 as the “Year of the American Indian.”

The American Indian response to the anniversary was marked by public protests. Yet, it also was seen by many in that community as a special, year-long opportunity to hold public education events, commemorations of ancestral sacrifices and contributions to America and celebrations for the survival of Native peoples over five centuries.

Federal Observances

In 1976, the United States’ bicentennial year, Congress passed a resolution authorizing President Ford to proclaim a week in October as “Native American Awareness Week.” On October 8, 1976, he issued his presidential proclamation doing so. Since then, Congress and the President have observed a day, a week or a month in honor of the American Indian and Alaska Native people. And while the proclamations do not set a national theme for the observance, they do allow each federal department and agency to develop their own ways of celebrating and honoring the nation’s Native American heritage. 

In 2009: Congress passes House Joint Resolution 40 (Pub. L. 111-33), the “Native American Heritage Day Act of 2009”, which designates the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day of each year as “Native American Heritage Day.” President Barack Obama signs the legislation on June 26. On October 30 he issues a proclamation designating November 2009 as “National Native American Heritage Month” and November 27, 2009 as Native American Heritage Day.”

The below documents requires Adobe reader to open.

A Brief History of the Trail of Tears   (PDF) (52 KB)
AI/AN Definition of Indian and American Indian Tribe   (PDF) (121 KB)
American Indian Culture Card   (PDF) (1,041 KB)
American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving   (PDF) (4,201 KB)
Bannock Bread   (PDF) (63 KB)
Traditional Dances-Men's Grass Dance   (PDF) (64 KB)

Learn more about Native American Heritage.