Native American Heritage Month

The National Congress of American Indians describes Native American Heritage month as a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. This month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.


One of earliest recorded attempts to create a day of recognition for the contributions of “First Americans” dates back to 1912, when Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker (Seneca Nation), who founded several Indian rights organizations, persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to recognize “First Americans” Day, which they did for three years.

Three years later, Red Fox James (Blackfeet), rode his horse around the country to ultimately secure endorsements from 24 state governments in favor of a day honoring American Indians. Although he presented the resolutions to the White House on Dec. 14, 1915, the Library of Congress reports that there is no record of such a day ever being proclaimed. That same year, at the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, the association’s president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge (Arapahoe Tribe) issued a proclamation declaring the second Saturday of each May as a day to recognize American Indians. The proclamation also included the first formal appeal to recognize Indians as citizens.

In 1916, New York became the first state to recognize American Indian Day (also on the second Saturday in May). In 1987, Congress called upon President Ronald Reagan to designate the week of November 22-28, 1987, as “American Indian Week.” And in 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution proclaiming November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”

Watch this short video provided by PBS that explains the importance of Native American Heritage Month and how it came to be.

On Monday, November 1 from 7-8 PM EDT, the Library of Congress is kicking off Native American Heritage Month with a live event featuring the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo and the first Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland.


  • Susan La Flesche: Born in 1865, Susan La Flesche grew up on the Omaha reservation. During her childhood, she saw a white doctor refuse to treat an ailing American Indian woman. This spurred La Flesche to become a physician herself. In 1889, she was the first female Native American to earn a medical degree in the United States.
  • Jim Thorpe: First Native American to win an Olympic Gold medal, 1912
  • Charles Curtis: First Native American to serve as Vice President of the United States (1929-1933)
  • Navajo Code Talkers: During World War II, the Navajo agreed to help when the military requested their assistance in developing a code based on the Navajo language. As predicted, the Japanese intelligence experts couldn’t break the new code.Without the help of the Navajo, World War II conflicts such as the Battle of Iwo Jima may have turned out very differently for the U.S. Because the code the Navajo created remained a top secret for decades, their efforts have only been recognized by the U.S. government in recent years. The Navajo Code Talkers are also the subject of the Hollywood motion picture “Windtalkers.”
  • N. Scott Momaday: First Native American to receive a Pulitzer Prize (1969)
  • Joyce Dugan: First woman to serve as principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (1995)

Ways to Recognize Native American Heritage Month

  • Visit a museum or reservation: There are approximately 326 reservations in the US. These reservations are not tourist attractions. Many are the remnants of native tribes’ lands, while others were created by the federal government for Native Americans who were forcibly removed from their lands. They are homes for tribes and communities; it’s where many live, work and raise their families. However, some reservations welcome visitors and have even erected museums to educate the wider public about their history and culture. For example, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, features an engaging exhibit fit for all ages. The Cherokee community also hosts cultural events and sells items nearby
  • ’Decolonize’ your Thanksgiving dinner: The Thanksgiving story of pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a friendly meal will be reenacted and celebrated across the country on November 28.But many Native Americans actually consider it a “Day of Mourning,” pointing out the story overlooks how the introduction of European settlers spelled tragedy for indigenous communities. For this reason, some Native American groups and their allies are calling on Americans to “decolonize” their Thanksgiving celebrations. Some ways of doing this include putting away Native American decorations and tropes, introducing native dishes to the dinner table and engaging in conversations about Native American history with dinner guests.
  • Read a book by a Native American author including: Tommy Orange, Louise Erdrich, Stephen Graham Jones and Joy Harjo.
  • Patronize a Native American owned business or donate to a Native American focused charity