PEAK—Promoting Education, Awareness, and Knowledge
University of the Rockies is proud to share our PEAK initiative: Promoting Education, Awareness, and Knowledge. Every month, we'll highlight different causes and opportunities that reflect the values of the University. You'll also learn ways that you can participate or be more involved.
November 2011 – National Native American & Alaska Native Heritage Month
Above: 17th Century Navajo Petroglyph in Largo Canyon, New Mexico.
The United States celebrates Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month each year in November to recognize the contributions made to the development of our country by the true first Americans. This monthly recognition owes much to the efforts of Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian who spent much of 1915 riding from state to state generating support for the approval of a day to honor Native Americans. On December 14, 1915, he visited the White House and presented endorsement of such a day from 24 state governments. It wasn’t until November of 1990 that President George H. W. Bush declared a National American Indian Heritage Month, and every year since, November has received a similar proclamation under varying names until its current incarnation. Today, Alaska Natives are included in the celebratory month’s title, since they are separate indigenous peoples that include Eskimo, Aleut, and many other independent cultures.
Above: Sioux Chiefs in Washington, D.C., after a meeting at the White House.
Contributions of Native Culture to American Freedom
November is also the month in which we celebrate Veterans Day. During World War II, the American forces fighting in the Pacific Theatre used a number of codes to encrypt secret intelligence. Although many of these codes were broken, one code that was never successfully compromised was the Navajo code, a code that was based upon the Navajo language. It is clear that throughout history, Native American practices have been adopted and adapted within American culture. Read the full story of the Navajo code.
Taking a Lesson: Native American Culture Embraces Harmony With the Earth
This November is an opportunity to learn from the customs and traditions of Native American cultures in our global efforts to gain harmony with our planet. Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux summarized the extent of nature’s significance in his culture when he said, “We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as ‘wild.’…To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery” (Chief Luther Standing Bear, 1933).
The value Native American cultures have always had for the natural world goes beyond a mere appreciation, as many consider nature and culture to be inseparable entities. In his article Nature and Culture: Problematic Concepts for Native Americans Jack Forbes notes, “[Native Americans] seem to see all of life which surrounds us as intelligent, inventive, changing, learning, teaching, evolving, acting, praying, feeling, and responding” (Forbes, 1997).
It is clear then that these cultures acknowledge not only the physical dimensions of the natural world around them, but also see them as intellectually stimulating, emotionally salient, and often the axis of their spiritual identities. This spiritual connection with nature is evidenced in the following traditional Native American prayer:
Oh, Great SpiritWhose voice I hear in the winds,
And whose breath gives life to all the world,hear me, I am small and weak,
I need your strength and wisdom.Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold
the red and purple sunset.Make my hands respect the things you have
made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.Make me wise so that I may understand the things
you have taught my people.Let me learn the lessons you have
hidden in every leaf and rock.”-Translated by Lakota Sioux Chief Yellow Lark in 1887
Right: Nature-inspired attire typically reserved for traditional powwow ceremonies.
The Cultural Significance of Harmony with Nature
One of the ways that we can more fully appreciate the harmony of this relationship with nature is by looking at the role it has played in the social context of Native American life. The cultural significance of the environment can be seen in the many social aspects dependent upon self-improvement achieved through interaction with the nature. By examining the customs and traditions of Native American cultures, we can more fully comprehend their affinity with the natural world.
One pastime greatly revered by the Cherokee nation was the “ball game.” This rite of passage was deeply ceremonial, and involved inter-tribe play. Ceremonies that were meant to bring success to the youth of a town involved invoking blessings from the natural world. Spiritual leaders asked that the players be blessed with characteristics of the deer and hawk, so that players would be fast-moving and keen of sight. These ball games changed over the years, merging into the evermore prevalent European culture until modern-day lacrosse was born.
Hunting was a pivotal part of life for many Native American cultures. It is not surprising then that this interaction with nature was often viewed as a sacred practice. The Dakota tribe presents an excellent example of this spiritual awareness. Their buffalo hunts were such a central aspect of their culture that their coexistence became evident in nearly every aspect of their lives, including spiritual rituals and traditional dance.
Native American healing is also a realm of culture in which the natural world is intrinsic. Native American medicine often does not differentiate between the ideas of healing and cure. These practices focused on individualized attention and emphasized the importance of reaching a natural balance, often with nutritional medicine and botanical remedies.
Recently, western culture has gained greater awareness of a need for a more congruent relationship with the natural world. This need is evidenced by our interest in renewable resources, our appreciation of the wonders of nature, and our newfound devotion to the preservation and protection of our planet.
For more information about Native American and Alaska Native Heritage month, and to find out how you can get involved, visit the official sites for Native American Heritage Month and Alaska Native Heritage Month.
Above: A sampling of botanical remedies, an important aspect of Native American healing.
A Summary of Native American Religions. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from: http://www.vcu.edu/
History/Philosophy. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from: http://nas.ucdavis.edu/Forbes/Nature%20and%20Culture%20-%20Problematic%20Concepts%20for%20Native%20Americans.pdf
Kirwan, P. The Emergent Land: Nature and Ecology in Native American Expressive Forms. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from: http://www.ucd.ie/pages/99/articles/kirwan.pdf
The Creation of National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month; A Brief History. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from: http://www.ihs.gov/
White, P. (2009). November is Native American Heritage Month. Retrieved October 1, 2011 from: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2351526/november_is_native_american_heritage.html
Browse through previous editions.