A History of National Native American Heritage Month: The Nation's Efforts to Honor American Indians and Alaska Natives
For almost one hundred years, Americans both Indian and non-Indian have urged that there be permanently designated by the nation a special place on the calendar 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.
The quest for a national honoring of Native Americans began in the early 20th Century as a private effort. As far back as the late 1970s, Congress has enacted legislation and subsequent presidents have issued annual proclamations designating a day, a week or a month to celebrate and commemorate the nation’s American Indian and Alaska Native heritage. In 2009, Congress passed and the President signed legislation that established the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day of each year as “Native American Heritage Day.”
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 travelled 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.
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.
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. For example, listed below are some themes used by the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior:
2014 - "Native Pride and Spirit: Yesterday, Today and Forever." Poster
2013 - "Guiding Our Destiny with Heritage and Tradition"
2012 - "Serving Our People, Serving Our Nations; Honoring Those That Served Our Country"
2011 - "Celebrating Our Ancestors and Leaders of Tomorrow"
2010 – “Life is Sacred – Celebrate Healthy Native Communities”
2009 – “Pride in Our Heritage With Gratitude to Our Elders”
2008 – “Tribes Facing Challenges: In Unity, Transforming Hope into Strengths”
2007 – “Keeping in Step to the Heartbeat of the Drum as We Unite as One”
2006 – “Tribal Diversity: Weaving Together Our Traditions”
2005 – “Knowledge of the Past/Wisdom for the Future”
2004 – “Native Nations: Continuing in the New Millennium”
2003 – “A Celebration of the American Indian Spirit”
2002 - "Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future"
1989 - National American Indian Heritage Week Program
Contact the federal department or agency you are interested in for information about their National Native American Heritage Month activities.
Congressional Resolutions and Presidential Proclamations
1976: Senate Joint Resolution 209 authorizes President Gerald R. Ford to proclaim October 10-16, 1976 as “Native American Awareness Week.”
1983: President Ronald Reagan designates May 13, 1983 as “American Indian Day.”
1986: President Reagan signs on October 14 Senate Joint Resolution 390 (Pub. L. 99-471) which designates November 23-30, 1986 as “American Indian Week.” He issues Proclamation 5577 on November 24, 1986.
1987: Pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 53 (Pub. L. 100-171), President Reagan proclaims November 22-28, 1987 as “American Indian Week.”
1988: President Reagan signs on September 23 a Senate Joint Resolution (Pub. L. 100-450) designating September 23-30, 1988 as “National American Indian Heritage Week.”
1989: Pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 218 (Pub. L. 101-188), President George Herbert Walker Bush issues a proclamation on December 5 designating December 3-9, 1989 as “National American Indian Heritage Week.”
1990: President George H.W. Bush approves on August 3 House Joint Resolution 577 (Pub. L. 101-343) designating November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” He issues Proclamation 6230 on November 14, 1990.
1991: Congress passes Senate Joint Resolution 172 (Pub. L. 102-123) which “authorize[s] and request[s] the President to proclaim the month of November 1991, and the month of each November thereafter, as ‘American Indian Heritage Month.’” President Bush issues Proclamation 6368 on October 30, 1991
1992 President George H.W. Bush issues on March 2 a proclamation designating 1992, which is also the Columbus Quincentennial, the “Year of the American Indian.” He does so pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 217 (Pub. L. 102-188), which he signed on December 4, 1991.
1992: President George H.W. Bush issues on November 25 Proclamation 6511 designating November 1992 as "National American Indian Heritage Month."
1993: Congress passes Pub. L. 103-462 authorizing the President to proclaim November 1993 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
1994: President William Jefferson Clinton issues on November 5 Proclamation 6756 designating November 1994 as “National American Indian Heritage Month,” pursuant to Pub. L. 103-462.
1995: President Clinton issues on November 2 Proclamation 6847 designating November 1995 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
1996: President Clinton issues on October 29 Proclamation 6949 designating November 1996 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
1997: President Clinton issues on November 1 Proclamation 7047 designating November 1997 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
1998: President Clinton issues on October 29 Proclamation 7144 designating November 1998 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
1999: President Clinton issues on November 1 Proclamation 7247 designating November 1999 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2000: President Clinton issues on November 8 Proclamation 7372 designating November 2000 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2001: President George W. Bush issues on November 12 Proclamation 7500 designating November 2001 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2002: President Bush issues on November 1 Proclamation 7620 designating November 2002 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2003: President Bush issues on November 14 Proclamation 7735 designating November 2003 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2004: President Bush issues on November 4 Proclamation 7840 designating November 2004 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2005: President Bush issues on November 2 Proclamation 7956 designating November 2005 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2006: President Bush issues on October 30 Proclamation 8076 designating November 2006 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2007: President Bush issues on October 31 Proclamation 8196 designating November 2007 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
2008: President Bush issues on October 30 Proclamation 8313 designating November 2008 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Congress passes House Joint Resolution 62 designating the day after Thanksgiving Day, Friday, November 28, as “Native American Heritage Day”.
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.”
2010: President Obama issues on October 29 Proclamation 8595 designating November 2010 as “National Native American Heritage Month.”
2011: President Obama issues on November 1 Proclamation 8749 designating November 2011 as "National Native American Heritage Month."
2012: President Obama issues on November 1 a proclamation designating November 2012 as "National Native American Heritage Month" and November 23, 2012, as "Native American Heritage Day."
2013: President Obama issues on October 31 a proclamation designating November 2013 as "National Native American Heritage Month."
2014: President Obama issues on October 31 a proclamation designating November 2014 as "National Native American Heritage Month."