National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of the original inhabitants, explorers and settlers of the United States.
The Society of American Indian Government Employees has chosen this year’s theme, “Sovereignty, Trust, and Resilience” to recognize the accomplishments and rich cultural traditions of America’s indigenous inhabitants.
America’s native population has lived on our continent for 40,000 years, since the Paleo Indians, according to Indians.org.
American Indians have long been the stewards of America’s lands and a contributor to our unique identity; unfortunately, it took many years before they were recognized for their value as the country’s first citizens.
At the turn of the century, efforts began to implement a day of recognition for American Indians’ contributions to America. One of the early proponents of an American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian.
In the early 1900s, he persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day to honor the first Americans.
In 1914, Red Fox James, a Blackfeet Indian, rode on horseback from state to state, seeking support for the designation of a day to honor American Indians.
A year later, James presented the endorsements of 24 state governments to the White House. There is no record of a national day being proclaimed, despite his efforts.
In 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association approved a formal plan to celebrate American Indian Day.
Reverend Sherman Coolidge, an Arapaho tribal member, asked the country to formally set aside a day of recognition.
In 1924, voting rights were extended to all American Indians after the Snyder Act was passed. Also, in 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, but it took no action to establish a National American Indian Day.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Congress passed a proclamation authorizing American Indian Week.
In 1990, the month of November was designated as National American Indian Heritage Month. The title has since expanded to celebrate Alaska Natives.
Currently, there are 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and more than 100 state-recognized tribes across the United States.
Native Alaskan tribes belonging to five geographic areas, are organized under 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, speak 11 different languages and 22 different dialects. They have 11 distinct cultures.
Federally recognized tribes retain certain inherent rights of self-government, known as tribal sovereignty, and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services and protections because of their innate relationship with the United States.
Sovereignty is the right of a nation or group of people to be self-governing and is the most fundamental concept defining the relationship between the government of the United States and governments of American Indian tribes.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are U.S. citizens and citizens of their tribes. They are subject to federal laws, but they are not always subject to state laws.
The nation's population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race, is 6.3 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
By the year 2060, the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is expected to be 10 million.
Serving in the U.S. Navy
In World War II, 44,000 Native Americans fought with distinction, including 1,910 in the Navy and 874 in the Marines. Two Oklahoma Cherokees distinguished themselves in the Navy. Rear Adm. Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark commanded aircraft carriers and later a task force. Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle off Samar, Philippines. American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in all branches of the military, and their contributions have been critical to the nation’s defense, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.
As of June 2018, they comprise 2.3 percent (8,689) of the Navy’s total force, 1 percent (600) of the officer ranks and 2.8 percent (1,206) of enlisted Sailors. More than 22,000 American Indians or Alaska Natives serve in the U.S. military, according to the Navy Office of Information.
U.S. Navy ships named in honor of American Indians include USNS Red Cloud (T-AKR-313), USNS Sacagawea (T-AKE-2), USNS Catawba (T-ATF-168), USNS Navajo (T-ATF-169), USNS Sioux (T-ATF-171), USNS Apache (T-ATF-172), USS Evans (DE 1023), USS Cherokee IV (AT 66), Yaquima, Wovoka, Winamac, Waukegan, Keywadin II (ATA-213), Tioga II (Launch) and Wabash IV (AOR-5), according to the Navy.
American Indians have participated with distinction in United States military actions for more than 200 years.
Their courage, determination, and fighting spirit was recognized by American military leaders as early as the 18th century, especially among the Apache and Comanche tribes.
During the Civil War, American Indians served on both sides of the conflict.
Ely Parker was a Union Civil War General who wrote the terms of surrender between the United States and the Confederate States of America. Parker was one of two American Indians to reach the rank of Brigadier General during the Civil War.
The second American Indian General was Stand Watie, a leader of the Cherokee Nation and Confederate Indian cavalry commander — the last Confederate General to surrender his troops.
In World War I, roughly 12,000 American Indians joined the ranks of the Armed Forces — their patriotism moved Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
Their extraordinary warrior ethos and survival skills, which frustrated opponents for generations, became instrumental to the nation's combat success.
Approximately 600 Oklahoma Indians, mostly Choctaw and Cherokee, were assigned to the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division.
The 142nd saw action in France and its Soldiers were widely recognized for their contributions in battle. Four men from this unit were awarded the Croix de Guerre, while many others received the Church War Cross for gallantry.
During World War II, more than 44,000 American Indians — from a total American Indian population of less than 350,000 — served with distinction between 1941 and 1945 in both European and Pacific theaters of war.
Collectively, American Indian service members earned at least 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and two Congressional Medals of Honor.
Alaska Natives were a significant presence on the Alaska Combat Intelligence Detachment. This outfit was the first ashore on each island occupied by Allied forces in the Aleutian Campaign.
Alaska Natives also served in the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG). The ATG was a military reserve force component of the U.S. Army. Organized in 1942, 6,368 volunteers — who served without pay — were enrolled from 107 communities throughout Alaska.
Battle-hardened American Indian troops from World War II were joined by newly-recruited American Indians to fight Communist aggression during the Korean conflict.
During the Vietnam Conflict, more than 42,000 American Indians — 90 percent of them volunteers — fought in Vietnam.
The contributions of American Indians in United States military combat continued in the 1980s and 1990s as they saw duty in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, and the Persian Gulf. It is recognized that, historically, American Indians have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.
The reasons behind this disproportionate contribution are complex and deeply rooted in traditional American Indian culture. In many respects, American Indians are no different from other patriots who volunteer for military service. They do, however, have distinctive cultural values that drive them to serve their country. One such value is their proud warrior tradition.
This characteristic has been clearly demonstrated by the heroic deeds of American Indians in combat throughout U.S. history.
The warrior tradition is best exemplified by the following qualities said to be inherent to most, if not all American Indian societies: strength, honor, pride, devotion and wisdom.
In addition to these worthy qualities, Native American Indians are renowned for their beautiful arts and crafts, textiles, dress, colorful masks, headdresses, paintings and many other beautiful works of art. They are known for their exquisite craftsmanship in creating stunning accessories such as necklaces, bracelets and belts often made with turquoise, garnets and silver.
Since the arrival of European settlers in America though, American Indians and Alaska Natives have struggled to preserve their culture and heritage for future generations, ensuring they consider the long-term effects when making decisions for their people.
In November, we recognize the diverse and enduring cultural traditions of American Indians and Alaska Natives, we celebrate their history and contributions to our shared values of freedom, democracy and ethnic and racial diversity, we thank them for their military service and devotion to safeguarding our national security.
Adapted from the Department of Defense National American Indian Heritage Month Special Report 2015 archive