Native American Heritage Month

The first peoples of the Americas came from Siberia, crossing the Bering Land Bridge about 15,000 years ago. By comparison, Europeans did not make contact until about 500 years ago!  According to a new genetic study, the number of Native Americans quickly shrank by roughly half, since then.

Thanksgiving seems like a good time to commemorate the native cultures that have become extinct, and to celebrate those that have survived (see previous post, Wednesday Word of the Week: Language; for notes on cultural legacy and linguistic diversity).

Whether you are near Washington, D.C. or New York City, or you can only visit virtually (through visiting the website), Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is a great place to explore and enjoy Native American Heritage Month.  From in-house events, exhibitions and collections, to online videos, to classroom lessons and educator programs, to their own blog, there are plenty ways to do it. One thing to note, here, is that while Smithsonian uses the term “American Indian,” and we are using the “Native American,” there are many who just use the term, “Indian”.  Having so many terms to describe native peoples is not only confusing, but also a bit misleading, as they all suggest a homogeneous population.  In fact, the original inhabitants of the United States at the time of European settlement were composed of hundreds of different tribes, most of whom did not share a common language or similar culture and were often at war with each other (more on tribal diversity, here).

Native American Culture Groups

Map by National Geographic Society

Major Native American culture regions in North America as they were when the Europeans first arrived.  Several of the larger tribes’ names are shown, as well – the lack of tribal unity made it easier for the Europeans to take control over the land. 

In order to dispel these kinds of generalizations and stereotypes created about the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and to promote their culture and traditions, a Native American Indian non-profit organization, called the Gathering of Nations, was founded in 1983. Among many contributions to the Native community, the Gathering of Nations funds the GON Native American Academic Scholarship Foundation for UNM Students and hosts the Annual Gathering of Nations PowWow, Miss Indian World Traditional Talent Presentations, and the Indian Trader’s Market at the University of New Mexico Arena “The Pit” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.


Photograph by Lauralee Williams, MyShot.

The Gathering of Nations PowWow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in April of 2012.

If your eyes are still hungry, indulge yourself with this beautiful collection of photos of Native American tools, art, architecture and tribal rituals and religious ceremonies.  And if you’re still feeling curious, learn more about Native American cultures and how they have shaped — and been shaped by — modern American culture through these articles, activities, and multimedia resources!

Happy Thanksgiving.

–Lindsey Luria, Fall Intern, for National Geographic Education

The featured photograph for this blog comes from Russell Schnitzer, MyShot. It is a photograph of Heart Mountain, near Cody, Wyoming, a sacred site for the Crow Tribe. This dancer performed as part of a traditional pipe ceremony.

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