November is recognized as Native American Heritage Month. This heritage month began as a way to recognize the significant contributions and the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the United States. This month also serves as an opportune time to educate the general public about the tribes, to raise awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which the tribal citizens have worked to overcome these challenges. This month is designated to highlight both American Indians and Alaskan Natives.
The History Channel has a nice list of some facts about some of the Native American Tribes recognized this month.
- Native Americans spoke more than 300 languages prior to colonization (believed to be more than 500). However, many of these languages disappeared as a result of assimilation policies. It wasn’t until 1972 when Congress passed the Indian Education Act that Native American tribes were permitted to teach their own languages. Now, all but two Native American languages are in danger of disappearing altogether by 2050.
- Prior to colonization, Native American languages were only ever orally transmitted. Following the arrival of Europeans, several tribes began to adopt writing systems. The Cherokee Nation was one of these. Sequoyah, a member of the Cherokee Nation, spent 12 years developing a writing system so that his people could learn to read and write – developing an 86-character syllabary in 1821. Because of the way it was developed, it took only 3-5 years for the tribe to be able to read and write. This led to the first bilingual newspaper in the United States in 1828, publishing in both English and Cherokee.
- There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., meaning they have government-to-government relationships with the United States like other sovereign nations. However, many tribes do not have federal recognition meaning they are ineligible for government programs and support.
- Native Americans cultivated many of the world’s most important crops. It is estimated that as much as 60% of the global food supply was based on crops that originated in North America. Some common ones include: maize corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and cacao. (See an interesting article about this here.)
- The Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also called the Iroquois Confederacy) is one of the oldest living democracies in the world. It was formed by five original tribal nations, though a sixth joined them many years later: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, then joined by Tuscarora in the 18th century. Researchers believe it was founded in 1142, while the confederacy itself says it has existed even longer than that. The United States Constitution was influenced by this Confederacy and the Great Law of Peace which the Confederacy follows.
- Native Americans were forcibly displaced by the Indian Relocation Act signed by President Andrew Jackson. This was spurred by the desire to grow cotton in the South on the lands of these tribes. This act forced Native Americans from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee and moved them to Oklahoma – during which thousands died during these forced migrations. Historically, this is referred to as the Trail of Tears.
- Native Americans weren’t granted American citizenship until 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. However, even though they were given full citizenship, they were still denied the right to vote due to voting rights being decided at the state level. Many of the practices to determine voting eligibility were known to be highly discriminatory but were abolished in 1965.
- The Navajo Nation has the largest tribal land in the US spanning almost 25,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (approximately the size of West Virginia). By population, the Navajo Nation is also the largest with nearly 400,000 registered members (just surpassing the Cherokee Nation for this title in 2021).
- Not all Native American tribes have their own land. There are around 326 tribal land areas in the US, compared to 574 federally-recognized tribes. Many of these tribes included here were ones who were forcibly relocated by the US government and were left without any land of their own. Only 22% of Native Americans live on tribal lands, though 68% live on or near their homelands.