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Native American Heritage Day honors Indigenous people, but it's falling short


The day after Thanksgiving was officially named Native American Heritage Day in 2008 to honor and remember the culture and contributions of the Indigenous people of America. For many, it's also a time to remember the tragedies within that rich history and recognize the struggles that Native communities face today. Ned Blackhawk is a professor of history and American studies at Yale and a member of the Te-Moak tribe of the Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada. My co-host, Steve Inskeep, spoke with him about the opportunities of Native American Heritage Day and where such recognitions fall short.

NED BLACKHAWK: It's an evolving, institutionalized commitment made by many entities, government and non. And it also follows what many Native Americans feel to be a national day of mourning around the Thanksgiving holiday, which is not universally shared but is often - particularly animates Northeastern Indigenous Nations who feel their communities and histories have never been fully recognized or incorporated.


I think we understand why some people would see this as a day of mourning, because it's a moment to mark a loss of sovereignty, a loss of land and any number of other tragedies and brutalities over the centuries. But you have delved into that same history, and while acknowledging the awfulness of it, you seem to take a different angle or make a different argument about the roles of Native peoples and Native Nations in American history. What are you trying to say?

BLACKHAWK: Well, in my new book, "The Rediscovery Of America," I'm trying to highlight the centrality of Indigenous peoples broadly to the making of what we call American history. And so while there is undeniable loss, dispossession, cultural genocide, even, there are still incredible forms of activism and advocacy and recent movements towards self-determination that make our contemporary era one worth recognizing in a different register.

INSKEEP: We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of an event that can be described as an effort to fully integrate Indians into the body politic, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. What was it, and how significant was it?

BLACKHAWK: The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 is part of a larger effort of early 20th century Native American activists and allies to put forward a final kind of recognition of Indigenous peoples as citizens of the United States. It's less kind of celebrated than other what we might think of as civil rights achievements in American history, in part because citizenry is not always the kind of primary form of Indigenous advocacy or the outcome that many Indigenous activists have aspired to. Many at the time were actually a little ambivalent about it because it was so rooted in a larger discourse of property ownership and assimilative practices of Christianity - Christian adoption, English language usage and a kind of distancing away from tribal communities themselves. And this, as you know, had been part of the federal government's civilization program since the 1870s, removing children from boarding schools, alienating reservation land. So it's not something that is as kind of celebratory as other subjects.

INSKEEP: Would you say that Native nations are, on the whole, gaining a larger role in American society in the last few generations?

BLACKHAWK: I would say that the last few generations have witnessed an incredible rise in the sovereign authority of Native nations in ways that we haven't seen in contemporary American history. It's difficult celebrating these subjects in a kind of simplified way, but if we can understand the rising tide of Indigenous sovereignty that has made Native nations self-governing, economically viable, even, like, attractive as tourist destinations, we can envision a kind of more inclusive and heterogeneous vision of America in which race relations are not mired in a kind of myopic, black-white binary.

INSKEEP: I think you're also telling me that I should think of Native Americans not solely as victims when I think about their role in history but as people with agency who fought back and who added something to the culture here.

BLACKHAWK: Correct. And being a member of a Native American nation is a form of citizenry that many Americans have a hard time understanding. I am - and many Native peoples are - members of both their tribal communities and the federal or national community. And that distinctiveness is something we should not be scared of but should embrace and try to learn and celebrate, particularly on Native American Heritage Day.

A MARTÍNEZ: That was my colleague Steve Inskeep speaking with Ned Blackhawk, a professor of history and American studies at Yale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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