On August 3, 1990 former president George H.W. Bush declared the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month but it’s more frequently referred to as Native American Heritage Month. The declaration’s intent was to give the native folks of the USA a visible way to share their culture, music, crafts, dance, traditions and other aspects of their life. So, what do we really know about Native Americans in America?
You might have learned in school the theory that our Native American population crossed the Bering Sea into what is now known as present-day Alaska, Canada and Greenland. For Native Americans this region is considered the Arctic culture area and the home of present-day Inuit and Aleut Native Americans often just called “Eskimos.” According to this theory, some of those nomads who crossed the Bering Strait continued eastward and southward while others settled down along the coast to establish fishing and hunting villages or tribes.
In North America, there are over 1000 tribes of Native Americans. Generally – five to eight regions are identified depending on the source used. The eight regions identified at www.ducksters.com/history/ native_american_tribes_regions were the classification of Indigenous Peoples of North America as follows: Arctic/Subarctic, Californian, Great Basin, Great Plains, Northeast Woodlands, Northwest Coast/Plateau, Southeast and Southwest.
If you’re like me, your knowledge of Native Americans probably was shaped by the books you read, the history that was taught in your school, the images you saw on television or at the movies. If you’re lucky, you’ve interacted with Native Americans on a more personal or community level. For me, impressions were formed by James Fenimore Cooper through his Leatherstockings Tales; the Daniel Boone Television series; stories about Pocahontas, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Pontiac, Sacajawea, and Crazy Horse, among others. As a history major, my knowledge expanded by reading books and stories such as: Code Talkers, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee or Trail of Tears.
Your knowledge may differ and be driven by the area you were born in, or currently reside. Many from North Carolina might focus on the largest Native American tribe which is the Cherokee tribe. If from Florida perhaps the Seminole Tribe. Both are from the Southeast Region. If from New York or the New England States it might be the Iroquois Nation or perhaps Wappani or Shawnee tribes. The Great Plains area is often pictured in Art, Literature, and History as those Native American tribes that hunted bison herds, lived in teepees, being nomads following those herds. Famous tribes of this region include the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapahoe and the Crow. The clash of cultures between these tribes and Europeans moving west was frequently portrayed in television and the movies usually in negative stereotypical fashion. The Southwest is more famous for the Pueblo, Navajo and Apache Nations.
The state of California currently recognizes 112 Tribal Nations. The Californian Region has many famous tribes such as the Shasta, Miwok, Mojave, or Wappo, however locally we probably are more familiar with the various Pomo tribes. These include the Big Valley Band in Lake County, the Coyote Valley tribe in Mendocino and the Dry Creek tribe in Geyserville. In Rohnert Park and Cotati, we are neighbors to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria which is federally recognized as an American Indian tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians.
Many Native American reservations, including our Graton Rancheria tribe, operate casino and entertainment centers. The pioneers of the Indian casino gaming industry, appears to have been the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation located in Southeastern, Ct. Perhaps you’ve heard of their Foxwoods Resort Casino. One of the oldest Native American reservations, they opened their Resort Casino in 1992. It is one of the largest in the nation and started the model for other tribes to follow throughout the United States. Under the leadership of Chairman Greg Sarris, our local tribe fought in the 1990s for the right to have their tribe recognized by the Federal government. They won their fight in 2000 when then President Clinton signed the authorizing legislation. In the first decade thereafter, working with the City of Rohnert Park, the tribe sought to open their Graton Resort and Casino. It was officially opened in 2013 allowing the tribe to become self-sufficient.
Hopefully you know more about Native Americans then just a visit to an Indian Casino. Ideally, you are not missing out on the rich history of their contributions, struggles and culture. You have on-line, in our libraries, and with the local celebrations and events an opportunity to explore those contributions to our American tapestry. Especially this month, I hope you take advantage of that. To quote Red Cloud (Makhpiya-luta): “I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches, but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.” Let’s train our children right!