In 1990 President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” The irony is that this falls around the same time as Columbus Day, marking the “discovery of America” and beginning of colonization. Genocide, degradation, disease, theft, rape, displacement, starvation, all followed colonization for Indigenous peoples, and the exploitation of Indigenous cultures continues to this day all over the world.
It follows Halloween, which always seems to resurrect the uncomfortable cultural appropriation. I can never go a year without seeing someone dressed up “like an Indian.” As if some fake feathers in your hair and paint on your face makes a person even close to defining the rich culture, history, legacy and struggle we have as Native people. It is a blatant mockery of our ethnicity, for those that may be unaware.
And for the grand finale … Thanksgiving. The day to stuff your face with turkey, and wake up early to catch those Black Friday bargains. Truth be told, we live in a commercialized society where all peoples culture, ethnicities, gender and identities are up for blatant objectification. Unfortunately, only during this stigmatized time of year, do Indigenous people arise in the psyche of American culture.
Is it OK for a stereotypical image of Native people to be perpetuated whether it be mascots, advertisements, movies, costumes, etc.? And if I want to protect the dignity of my community by preventing a stereotypical image of my demographic from being perpetuated throughout our town, am I somehow “just overreacting?” Due to our culture that has become so well adjusted to injustice, it is very difficult for us as Native people to defend our identities with dignity. Especially during a time of year that has so many stigmas attached to it.
Is it possible to have an honest dialogue about the genocidal history that this country was founded upon? Our ancestors were among the first victims of this terrorist attack we know as colonization. This hateful language and ideology has degraded our precious African-American brothers and sisters throughout history, and that same ideology is terrorizing our fellow Indigenous brothers and sisters south of this “American” border. It runs rampant, waging the longest and least talked about war in U.S. history on innocent civilians of the Middle East. Yet, when we want to have an honest dialogue about colonist ideologies and how white privilege has been systematically put into place throughout this world, country and history, it is somehow offensive, and the New Jim Crow isn’t?
The Native community, just as so many other stigmatized communities, has suffered many losses over the last century at the hands of this oppressor, and we are still here today. We are the survivors of the attempt of the U.S. government to exterminate an entire culture. I cannot speak for every indigenous person, but some may share this sentiment when I say, our ancestors did not suffer to be later remembered as characters and as a culture to be made a mockery of. This is supposed to be a time when we honor and remember our Indigenous peoples with dignity and respect, especially those that have passed on. I am Klamath, Wasco, Chinook, Molalla, Paiute, Warm Springs, Yakama, Pit River, Modoc, all tribes of Oregon, Washington and California, and I have been a resident of Eugene for 18 years.
Being a Native woman, I am 2.5 times more likely to experience a sexual assault than women in other ethnic groups and was born into an ethnic group with the highest poverty rate in the nation at 39 percent. I live in a world where I can be harmed, just for being who I am. Though I am very proud to be a strong survivor and part of the tradition, this is why it is often referred to as “the struggle,” because we are still subject to harm to this day. Our families have called this land home for thousands of years and would like to continue to live here for thousands more with peace, dignity, honor and respect. Happy Native Heritage month! Kwathla, thank you.