As we enter November, which is recognized as “Native American Heritage Month,” I can’t help but wonder are the indigenous people of North America in a better place now than a year ago. As I ponder this question I wonder if I can truly answer that question. I’m not of tribal descent, and no matter what my education and experiences bring to the table, I’m not fully able to understand what it is like to be an American Indian. What I can do is evaluate and celebrate important events that refer to the indigenous people of North America and make note of any occurrences that make 2021 a better year than last.
Last month I took a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The goal of this trip was to research and explore the Cherokee Nation. Up to this point my interactions with the Cherokee people have revolved around the Eastern Band of Cherokee located in North Carolina. I was looking to see what differences and similarities I would observe from two tribal groups that have been separated by 850 miles for the past 190 years.
As I traveled through the town of Tahlequah, I visited several museums that informed and celebrated the heritage of the Cherokee people. One of the important events that I was reminded of during my exploration of these museums was the creation of the Cherokee syllabary by Sequoyah. As a matter of fact, this year is the bicentennial of that event. Getting to observe several of Sequoyah’s original documentation along with some artifacts was one of the highlights of my visit.
One of the many points that stand out for me in the past 10 months, is the change in our government’s presidency. One can’t keep up with current events without feeling the effects on how a new president can change the outlook on different groups of people. I decided to see how our new President has chosen to interact with the tribal nations found within the United States. To do this I revisited President Biden’s campaign website. I found that one of his many platform items was a better relationship with the over the five hundred federally recognized tribal groups within the United States. What I found out was that our now President had set up numerous reasonable and achievable goals that would better the life for the original inhabitants of this great continent. Here is the list of the goals set by the President that were found on his website.
The Biden-Harris plan will:
- Strengthen the Nation-to-Nation relationship
- Provide reliable, affordable, quality health care and address health disparities
- Restore tribal lands, address climate change, and safeguard natural and cultural resources
- Ensure Native communities are safer and tackle the crisis of violence against Native women, children, and the elderly
- Expand economic opportunity and community development in Native communities
- Invest in education and youth engagement
- Meet obligations to and commemorate Native veterans
- Ensure Native Americans can exercise their right to vote
From the above bullet points President Biden spells out in detail how he and Vice President Harris would accomplish their goals once they were elected to office. As a proponent for American Indian rights, I’m interested if any of these goals have been accomplished within the first ten months in office, or if these are just another politician’s empty promises to help get elected to office.
Let’s address the first bullet point under President Biden’s platform, which is “Strengthen the Nation-to-Nation relationship”. Further under the heading of “Strengthen the Nation-to Nation relationship” President Biden explains that he wants to appoint “Native Americans” to high-level government positions and nominate judges who understand federal Indian law. Each candidate promises that their interpretation of what works would be beneficial to American Indians, who historically have been absent from such positions, even though they would be the best candidates for such positions. In a journal article I wrote in 2019, titled “Art Interrupted: Where are the Indigenous Women?” I mentioned the importance of two American Indian women who had been elected to congress. These two women were Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, both having extensive backgrounds in change within their tribal communities and with an innate need to help others. On March 15, 2021, President Biden fulfilled his campaign promise by nominating Deb Haaland, which U. S. Senate confirmed, making her the first American Indian cabinet secretary in U. S. history.
Another part of President Biden’s campaign goal of strengthening nation-to-nation relationship was to nominate “Native Americans” to positions of judges. In May of this year President Biden nominated Lauren J. King to a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. If confirmed, she would be one of three American Indians that currently reside on the federal bench. The other two are U.S. district judges Diane Humetewa and Ada Brown. On September 28th, Ms. King was confirmed by U.S. Senate.
With only a glimpse of research into what President Biden has accomplished within the first ten months in office, I believe that he is trying to accomplish the goals he set for himself when running for office. It my belief that there is still plenty of room for President Biden to fulfill more of his platform items as it pertains to tribal nations.
Another celebration that we can enjoy is the spreading of Indigenous Peoples’ Day throughout many states on the second Monday of October. As of this year 9 states officially celebrate the holiday, with the joining of Nebraska and Oregon, and 10 states along with Washington D. C. observe the day via proclamations.
Numerous cities throughout the U.S. have already chosen to focus on the original inhabitants of our country instead of on a person who never set foot on the continental U.S.
Summing up this past 10 month, I see positivity in our future. As a person who always tries to be positive and look towards a better future, I can see a forward momentum towards rectifying past misfortunes as it pertains to the tribal nations. Although there is still plenty to fix, I would like to believe we are heading down the right path.
Dr. Bruce Maggi is a Teaching Associate at Coastal Carolina University where he focuses on American Indian Art.