According to Native American Encyclopedia, a proposal for a special day to honor those who lived on this continent before the Europeans came was made to then President Calvin Coolidge. The president issued a proclamation on September 28, 1915 that the second Saturday in May would be dedicated to learning about the original inhabitants of the land that is now called the United States.
President George Bush expanded American Indian Day to Native American Heritage Month, but moved it to November, instead of May. Today, elementary and high schools try to feature Native American history in their lessons for November. Public libraries generally have special exhibits related to Native American history and culture during this month. This is a good chance for everyone to learn more about the original inhabitants of the United States, without whose help the settlers from Europe would surely not have survived.
There is Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, Asian-Pacific American History Month in May (also Jewish American History Month), Gay and Lesbian Pride Month in June, Hispanic Heritage Month in September, and Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History Month in October, in addition to Native American History Month in November. The trouble with “history months” is that people sometimes give in to the temptation to do an obligatory token lesson, bulletin board, student program, exhibit, or festival, then they forget about it for the rest of the year, feeling satisfied that they’ve somehow done their civic duty. Some of the same, tired old whitewashed lessons and programs get passed around from year to year, and we end up seeing and hearing the same things over and over again. The result is that we don’t learn anything new.
Part of the problem today is that we knew too much about a glorified history of Indians just before, during and after European colonization, but then the narrative is dropped, and we know very little, if anything, about the way Natives live in modern times. Many Americans know very little about the way Natives were treated from the 1800s forward, and some would be truly shocked at what they might hear. I certainly didn’t know that much, and I have always considered myself fairly well-educated. And yes, I was shocked to hear about some things, such as the fact that Native kids in Catholic boarding schools in the Midwest were often beaten for speaking their own languages, and some of them were even handcuffed for punishment, with tiny, child-sized handcuffs.
What upsets me most of all, though, is how Natives are still treated in my own state of South Dakota. The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people (generally lumped together as the Sioux Tribe) are among the poorest people in the entire United States. Even “modern” homes on the reservations have horrible “black mold” problems, reservations lack infrastructure (roads, electricity and running water are absent in certain areas) with the result that there are not enough businesses on the reservations to hire people. The people lack amenities that many Americans take for granted.
The Cheyenne River Reservation, for example, is the fourth largest reservation in the entire United States. It is 4,266.987 square miles in area. For comparison, the five boroughs of New York City comprise 468.5 square miles, so the Cheyenne River Reservation is nearly 10 times the size of New York City. It’s about 100 miles wide, east to west and about 90 miles north to south. The population of Cheyenne River Reservation is 8,470. The population of New York City is estimated at 8,336,697 for 2012. So NYC has nearly 1000 times the number of people as Cheyenne River. Now, there are at least 65 hospitals in the five boroughs of NYC, according to an admittedly incomplete list on Wikipedia, but the number is good enough for our comparison. That’s one hospital for every 128,256 people or so. Not too shabby, and nobody has to go very far for healthcare. On Cheyenne River, there is only one hospital, located in the community of Eagle Butte, and although it just opened in 2011 (built with federal stimulus money), it is still the only hospital on the reservation, which is ten times the size of NYC. So sure, there’s 1 hospital for 8,470 people, way better than NYC, but think about how far people have to drive to get to the hospital! Also, according to news stories about the new hospital, it is basically equipped to handle only one birth at any given time, so Lakota moms have to have their babies induced as a matter of course, mainly for the convenience of the doctors and the hospital! (By the way, the old hospital was only 1/3 the size of the new one, and it was built in 1959! As well, for at least a decade, women who were ready to give birth and wanted a natural delivery had to endure a 90-mile “hell ride” to a hospital off the reservation, located in Pierre, the capital city of South Dakota. In 2010 the ACLU filed a suit against the state of South Dakota regarding health services for women on the Cheyenne River Reservation. It seems that the new hospital must have been built in response to that, but if women have to be induced, have things really changed? Hardly!
The situation is similar in all reservations, not only for hospitals, but for grocery stores where fresh food is sold, for example. For many years, the Lakota Thrifty Mart in Eagle Butte, a tribally-owned, full-service grocery, has been the only grocery store in a 80-100 mile radius. Imagine having to drive 50 miles or more for groceries! Now they are expanding and building two convenience stores in the towns of Takini and LaPlante and one more full-service store in Dupree. There are community groups, now, that are starting community gardening projects, because otherwise, the people have limited access to fresh food, and the prices at the stores on the reservations high compared to outlets such as Walmart in Rapid City, 150 miles away. It’s not like people can just hop in their car to go grocery shopping, either, because many don’t own cars, and they don’t own big freezers, either.
Then there’s voting. This year, with the help of a voting rights group called Four Directions, three tribes (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Crow Creek Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe) asked for registration and early voting sites near where most people live in Dewey, Buffalo and Jackson counties, so that people would not have to make an 80-mile round-trip drive just to be able to vote. The SD Secretary of State refused to release money for this, even though the state got federal funds that were supposed to be used to help Americans vote, and the money was used in other counties. The result, many members of these tribes do not vote.
Another huge issue: The state of South Dakota still takes Native children out of their homes and puts them in non-Native homes – even if there are family members who are willing to raise the children. Why? Because the South Dakota welfare system gets federal funding for each child on their caseload. This system has been defended by sitting governors of the state, because South Dakota is a “poor” state. Of course, they never mention in the same breath that South Dakota has no state income tax! The Lakota People’s Law Project is currently trying to challenge the state on this issue. This kind of effort has to have support all year around, not just in November.