July 03, 2013

Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to culture and land loss. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals. That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans.

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
Pawnee Indian Homecoming recognizes returning veterans. Pawnee, Oklahoma. This year's homecoming takes place July 4 through 7. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans. Used with permission.

During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we went to Facebook. This handful of replies represents both the diversity of responses we received and the direction of the discussion:

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I just may join thousands of other Americans on the National Mall. I’ll go with my two daughters and watch the huge fireworks display!

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

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My daugther and grandsons have CDIBs (Certified Degree of Indian Blood). They are descendant from Native Americans. They are also descendant from folks who fought in the French and Indian Wars, Europeans who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, etc etc. They are descendant from slave owners, slaves, and anti slave folks. They are descendant from folks with several different religions. They are descendant from folks born in castles and folks who were serfs. This IS America. They ARE American. — My family is like many other Indian families, part of this giant "melting pot" culture. We participate in many traditional Indian doings, but we are not so blind as to deny our other ancestors as well. — Yes we celebrate the 4th of July. Thanks Dennis Zotigh

we at sisseton-wahpeton are the host of the 2nd oldest, only behind the omaha of neb, wacipi (powwow) in the country and our veterans (myself included) are the highlight!! flag raising and retirement of the flags and the reading of the names of the flag holder..proud to be indian! brown and proud (as chingo bling sings)!!!

Thank you for this very important and appreciated document! I am an ignored Juaneno (Ajachemen)Indian: band of Mission Indians of San Juan Capistrano....denied of federal rights! It's been easier for me to be a proud American (with my long lineage of descendants),then to be a culturally savvy American Aboriginal!

The 4th has never felt like my holiday. As a Native Alaskan, I know my folks have been here since basically the beginning of time, well before the Americans came and well before the Russians came. I see the longer history involved. I don't have any grudges and don't want to be negative, BUT I can't help but think this whole holiday has become a big celebration of hypocrisy. We have the most people in prisons, we can't even decide what we want to do with our own bodies, everything we do, even on our own land, requires permits, the government monitors us without warrants, etc. etc. The government that was established to guarantee its citizens specific rights, has become too large and over reaching. Natives and non-natives are now equally denied freedoms we used to have. We can come together as modern Americans and forgive our past wrongs, but the focus should really be on preserving the actual rights we are supposedly celebrating.

My wife and I have always celebrated the 4th because it was the day of birth for our son. He grew up thinking the whole Country was celebrating his birthday. Sadly he passed 6 years ago from acute alcoholism. Today he would have been 41. We now look up at the sky during the fireworks and know he is looking down again knowing that the Country is celebrating his life.

Mr. Ulibarri,

Thank you for writing this. We're so sorry for your loss. We'll remember your family on the 4th of July and take a moment to celebrate your son's life.

As a person who works for a flag company, I was interested to read all of this information. We are one of the few flag companies that carry Native American nation flags and since we generally just deal with the flags and symbols themselves we don't always know all of the history involved. It is sad that it isn't taught in schools but as I'm one of the people responsible for the information on our marketing materials, I'd love to use information from this. I design educational posters for the company and had Native American flags on my list to design in the next few months. If educators use the poster in their classrooms perhaps we can help the younger generations learn more about our nation's rich history that Native American's played a major role in. Especially the fact that so many fought for a nation that less than a century earlier had so disrespected them. That is an important lesson in pride, forgiveness and honor.

I had no idea this was the case for Native Americans. Very eye opening info on American history.

MY best friend is an Native American and he celebrates 4th of July like every other American.

Halito, my Family is Choctaw We are also Veterans near Ft bragg NC. We celebrate it and a local "tribe" even has a 4th of July Pow Wow. If you choose to or Not to celebrate the Day it is totally up to the tribe and person...to each their Own.

May 23, 2013

Tornadoes have devastated American Indian families in Oklahoma. Here's one way people are helping.

“Our house is trashed. Time to rebuild. I’m just sad for those kids that died.”                             
—Charley Eisenberger (Kiowa), upon seeing
 his home after the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado

Perrin in front of her home after the tornado
Perrin Deal (Choctaw) sits in front of her house, which was badly damaged by the tornado. May 2013, Moore, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Perrin Deal, used with permission.


My colleagues and I at the National Museum of the American Indian offer sincere condolences to the people affected by the recent, severe tornadoes in Oklahoma. More than 20 American Indian families lost their homes in this disaster. Their tribal affiliations include Arapaho, Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Delaware, Jicarilla Apache, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Shawnee.

In addition to the Moore tornado, tornadoes displaced and affected American Indian families in the communities of Shawnee, Bethel, and Little Axe. Rain and flash floods are expected today in Oklahoma as families clean up their homes and begin to rebuild their lives. 

So many tribal and non-tribal individuals, government agencies, and nonprofit groups are working to provide assistance. I’d like to shine a light on one of them, to give people outside Oklahoma a sense of the grassroots efforts among people there. I hope this organization can serve as a stand-in for all the people we’d like to thank for their good work.

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) Disaster Relief Team—whose mission is to provide direct support, care, and assistance to American Indian victims of disasters—is serving as a focal point to coordinate Native relief efforts. Rev. David Wilson (Choctaw), dwilson@oimc.org, head of the OIMC Disaster Relief Team, has provided telephone numbers for people who need help or who want to provide assistance; the team can be reached at 918-724-1966 or 405-632-2006. Also, donations can be made online on their website at http://www.umc-oimc.org/ Checks can be mailed to The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, 3020 S. Harvey, OKC. OK 73109  Attn: Disaster Relief.

Other local organizations have come together behind OIMC, including the Jacobson House Foundation and the Oklahoma Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). “I have full confidence in them,” says Cortney Yarholar (Creek/Pawnee/Otoe), senior tribal prevention specialist for SPRC in Oklahoma. “They have protocols in place that allow them to assist tribal families in a comprehensive way, addressing immediate needs, such as shelter, food, clothing, to longer-term life-changing help, such as rebuilding homes and offering grief support, which is vital for many months and sometimes years to come.” 

To the many people coming together behind the work of recovery and rebuilding, Cortney says, “Thank you for understanding and taking the time to join our efforts to provide direct support to Native families. Our Indian people are great people, and your generosity, love, and kind words have been very humbling.”

Tracey Satepauhoodle-Mikkanen, secretary of the Jacobson Foundation, echoes Cortney’s words. “Ah-ho [thank you] to everyone who wants to contribute to this cause.”

I'd like to join them both in saying thank you and to let people in Moore and other affected communities know that we're thinking of them as they work to support each other and move forward.

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota) is a writer and cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian. Before joining the Smithsonian, he lived in Moore and helped develop the American Indian Gallery of the new Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.


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Thank you for sharing information and accessibilty for individuals and organizations to assist.

Rebecca Balog

I have always thought there should be a Native American rescue organization to help Natives reclaim any regalia, ceremonial items, etc. that may be in the debris.

Thank you Dennis for sharing this information on how we can help in the meantime.

March 15, 2013

"We Are Aware, Are You?" — Welcoming Students From the Suquamish Tribe

DSC_8055 Vincent, a high school student from the Suquamish Tribe of Washington state, performs a traditional song in the Rasmuson Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2013 (Photo by Leonda Levchuk, NMAI)

Long before the first European stepped ashore in 1792, the Suquamish had called the Puget Sound home for nearly 10,000 years. Thanks to the region’s abundance of salmon, cod, clams, geoducks, oysters and waterfowl, the tribe had cultivated a meaningful relationship with and reliance upon the region’s waterways. In fact, the word Squamish means “People of the Clear Salt Water” in the Southern Lushootseed language. (Incidentally, the region's largest city is named after Suquamish leader Chief Sealth, or Seattle, who tried to protect his people and their land through early alliances and treaties with European settlers.)

Though Port Madison Indian Reservation—where roughly half of the tribe’s 1,050 enrolled members live today—represents a fraction of the territory their ancestors once called home, the Suquamish have managed to retain the fishing traditions that once defined their forebears’ way of life. But a new threat to the tribe’s culture has emerged, according to We Are Aware/ Are You?, a short documentary that was screened yesterday at the D.C. museum.

As the film explains, industrial pollution from nearby Seattle—home to corporate giants like Starbucks, Amazon and, until recently, Boeing—has led to ocean acidification, which occurs when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean, raising pH levels and damaging young marine life.

The film’s message was underscored by the presence and passion of its creators: Vincent Chargualaf, Tyleeander Purser, Shaylene Sky Jefferson and Crystal Boure, four high school students from the Suquamish tribe who had traveled from Washington state to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about ocean acidification and its devastating impact on the fishing culture and economy that has sustained their families for hundreds of generations.


“My father taught me how to fish, his father taught him. It’s a rite of passage. And it makes me sad to think that my children or my children’s children may not get to experience that," said Tyleeander, whose European and Native American roots includes fishermen on both sides of his family. “With lack of salmon comes unhappy Northwest Indians,” he joked.

But the students were quick to point out that ocean acidification isn't confined to the Northwest. “It doesn’t affect only our tribe,” Shaylene said to the audience. “It affects the global economy.”

  DSC_8061From left: Shaylene, Crystal, Vincent, Tyleeander, a group of four high school students from the Suquamish Tribe of Washington state, ponder questions about their community at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2013 (Photo by Leonda Levchuk, NMAI)

Before screening their film at the museum, the tribe’s young delegates presented their documentary at the 4th National Student Summit on the Ocean and Coasts, a conference sponsored by the Coastal America Partnership that brings together dozens of students and educators from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico to promote stewardship of the world’s water resources.

Following a performance of traditional Suquamish song and a screening of their film in the museum's Rasmuson Theater, the students took questions from the public. When asked what prompted their interest in environmental advocacy, Vincent piped up on behalf of his classmates: “I got this one,” he said with a smile, before explaining that a group of older students at their high school had paved the way, having attended the summit several years ago. And though he and his fellow classmates were “volun-told” to attend this year’s conference, they’ve since become passionate about the cause.

“About four or five months ago, we didn’t have any idea about ocean acidification," Vincent admitted. "But the more I learn, the more scared I get. I think I speak for all of us when I say this issue has invigorated my spirit.” Crystal agreed. “The more I learn, the more interested I become.”

“There are no words to explain how frightening it is to hear that we might lose a huge part of our culture within our own generation,” Vincent said.

“It’s almost like losing our treaty rights,” Shaylene added. “What our ancestors fought so hard for.”

“I think we will have sea life to harvest in the next generation,” said Paul Williams, the tribe’s shellfish biologist, who had traveled across the country with his community’s young ambassadors. “The question is what will it be, and will we like to eat it. Will we have to figure out a way to eat jellyfish?”

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I am impressed, I must say
this article is very interesting...

Interesting share. It is indeed a good idea to introduce youths from a minority tribe to the world so as to speak out their insights on the current situation they live in and perhaps introduce an aspect or two of their traditions so those who are in the dark will understand their plight and why they are what they are. It's a win-win for both.

Interesting article..nice to learn situations of tribe peoples..

December 06, 2012

President Obama Hosts 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference

Native American military veterans, including a member of the Native American Women Warriors, Marine Justin Fisher and a Navajo Code Talker from WWII (bottom right), take their seats at the closing session of the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, President Barack Obama hosted the 4th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, a day-long event that brings together leaders and representatives from the country's 566 federally recognized tribes and members of the Obama administration. Calling it "the cornerstone of the Administration’s outreach and engagement with tribal governments," President Obama has held the conference each year since he took office as part of his original campaign pledge to improve nation-to-nation relations between Indian Country and the U.S. government. He is the first American President to hold annual meetings with Native American leaders.

This year's conference, held at the Department of the Interior's headquarters, began with opening remarks by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, (full remarks here), who highlighted several of the Interior Department's accomplishments during the past year, including payouts in the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, a landmark case over mismanagement of federal lands held in trust for Native Americans.

First brought to court in 1996, the class-action lawsuit was led by plaintiff Elouise Cobell of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, a trustee of the museum who passed away last year. When President Obama signed the settlement into law on Dec. 9, 2010, he called it a "small measure of justice" for the wrongdoings. (Read more about the Cobell settlement here.)

Remarks were also delivered by:

  • Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education (Full transcript here)
  • Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Department of the Treasury (Read the press release here)
  • Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank, Department of Commerce (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture (Read the press release here)
Members of the administration during the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference. L-R: Tony West, Acting Associate Attorny General, Dept. of Justice; Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, Small Business Administration; Secretary Ray LaHood, Dept. of Transportation; and Secretary Hilda Solis, Dept. of Labor. (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

Following opening remarks, administration officials invited tribal leaders to attend breakout sessions that were closed to the public. The roundtables, led by various Obama administration officials, addressed various topics:

  • Strengthening Tribal Communities: Economic Development, Housing, Energy and Infrastructure, led by Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture; and Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, FEMA.
  • Protecting our Communities: Law Enforcement and Disaster Relief, led by James Cole, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice; and Craig Fugate, Administrator, FEMA.
  • Securing Our Future: Cultural Prottection, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, led by Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor, Department of the Interior; and Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice.
  • Building Healthy Communities, Excellence in Education and Native American Youth, led by Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; and Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education, White House Domestic Policy Council.
  • Strengthening and Advancing the Government-to-Government Relationship, led by Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes, Department of the Interior; and Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Department of Justice.

The closing session featured remarks by the leaders of each roundtable, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The Department of Justice's Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West noted that, for him, one of the main takeaways of the conference is that no two tribes are alike, and that these distinctions should be taken into consideration when shaping federal policy. The challenges facing landless tribes are vastly different than those confronting tribes whose federal recognition was terminated and later restored, he said.

Other concerns raised during the breakout sessions included:

  • The disproportionate effect of climate change on indigenous communities.
  • The rise of violence and drug trafficking on tribal land.
  • The effect of the fiscal cliff on Native American communities. 
  • Enforcing NAGRPA and protecting sacred tribal land and resources from mineral development.
  • Expanded education and suicide prevention for Native youth.
  • Internet and transportation infrastructure on reservations.

Read Indian Country Today's recap.   

Read MSNBC's What You Didn’t See at the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

President Barack Obama addresses tribal leaders at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Dec. 5. 2012 (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

After being welcomed onstage by Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Nation, President Obama delivered the conference's closing remarks. He began by paying tribute to tribal elder Sonny Black Eagle, who had adopted him into the Crow Nation during his 2008 campaign after he became the first Presidential candidate in history to visit the Crow reservation. Black Eagle passed away last week, just eight days shy of his 79th birthday.

“While we can’t celebrate that milestone with him today, we can celebrate his remarkable life and all that happened along the way," President Obama said. "Because Sonny’s story is not just one man’s journey to keep his culture alive, but one country’s journey to keep perfecting itself.”

Watch President Obama's full remarks on the White House website.

President Barack Obama greets members of the audience following his remarks at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

In its executive summary for the Tribal Nations conference, the White House detailed its achievements for Indian Country during the President's first term, which included:

  • The HEARTH Act, which restores tribal authority to govern the leasing and management of their own lands.
  • The Tribal Law and Order Act, which improves coordination between federal law enforcement and tribal justice systems.
  • Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was permanently reauthorized as part of the Affordable Care Act
  • In addition to Cobell case, the settlement of the Keepseagle class-action lawsuit, which awarded $680 million to 4,200 Native American farmers and ranchers who were systematically denied loans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981 to 1999.

What do you think of the issues addressed at this year’s Tribal Nations Conference? What are some of the issues facing your communities? Share your thoughts with us!

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June 05, 2012

Inspiration from Alaska

IMG092                    NMAI Cultural Interpreter Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) poses with a group of visitors from Alaska outside the museum. (Photo courtesy of Rachael Cassidy)

On Sunday I had the opportunity to give a tour to nine amazing students from Alaska, with a teacher and cameraman in tow. The Yupik kids are from a small island with a total population of 50 people. This was their third time off the island. After fundraising for three years, they finally had enough money to take their trip to Washington, D.C. The National Museum of the American Indian was at the top of their list of sites to see.

As a Cultural Interpreter, I have given tours to people from all walks of life. This includes kindergarteners and diplomats. I have given thousands of tours, but I will never forget my time with these amazing young people. Their bright, inquisitive eyes darted over exhibits and back to me, soaking up the experience like thirsty, happy sponges. Most young people are not interested in museums, so I have developed a bag of tricks to get their attention. These kids didn’t need any magic tricks; they brought the magic in the door with them.

We played a little game about identity: I showed the students a picture of a Cherokee woman from Oklahoma in her traditional clothing. “Who is more Cherokee,” I asked, “me or the woman in the picture?” The Yupik kids responded the same way most visitors do and pointed to the woman in the picture. “Really?” I asked and looked at the picture. “Do you recognize the woman in the picture?” They looked carefully and a wide-eyed few piped up, “That’s you!” I asked again, “Who is more Cherokee?” They were confused, and again, most of them said the woman in the picture. “If I change my clothes, does that change who I am?” We had a fun discussion about cultural identity. They decided that even if they aren’t wearing traditional clothing, they are still Yupik.

The teacher asked me to talk about leaving home, addressing language loss and lack of traditions. These are concerns for many Native people when we leave home. I shared my experiences as an urban Native in the D.C. area. I miss a lot of cultural events at home. However, it is an honor to teach people about my culture and my history. I have grown as an individual because of the time I have spent in Washington. I have a better understanding of my culture because I have left home. I compare my culture to others around the world. Now I understand why we tell our stories and cook our foods in certain ways. I share these stories and cultures with my family and friends when I return. My nieces and nephews love Alaskan string games! “You can do both. You can leave your community to teach others about Yupik peoples. When you return home, you will have new stories to share with your community.”

The students loved the idea that tradition changes and always has, as expressed through contemporary objects at the museum like the Yupik mask made from kitchen utensils and beaded tennis shoes. We talked about Native artists, Senators, and astronauts. We discussed the importance of elders and traditions. After I had shared objects and stories with them for nearly two hours, they were ready to share with me.

We went to the Yupik exhibit. The Yupik are known for telling stories through dance. Two teenage girls shared a beautiful dance that tells the story of the traditional sweat baths. We shared words in our languages. Then I showed them a dance a Yupik grandmother gave the museum about the drum. It was brilliant to see to see all nine of them making the motions for the large flat Yupik drum.

These students wanted to learn. They wanted to be at my museum. They wanted to hear my stories. This is why I came to work at NMAI—so I could share these stories with the next generation. Most aren’t interested, but these students didn’t waste a single moment of their time. Even the four-year-old asked questions! Their teacher was amazing. She has poured her heart into these young people, and it shows. The cameraman is making a film about their experiences leaving the island. I can’t wait to see it!

I believe these students can do anything. I believe they can be Senators, astronauts, artists, traditionalists, and filmmakers. Wado, (thank you) for helping me remember why I came to NMAI. I am truly blessed to have had you all as my teachers. You are the next generation. You are my inspiration.

~  Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), Cultural Interpreter, NMAI

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