A few years ago my family and I went on a walking tour of the sites around the mall near the US Capitol in Washington, DC. A sudden rain shower drove us inside the nearest building – the National Museum of the American Indian. What a wonderful and inspiring time we experienced inside!
The multitude of exhibits gave clear testimony to the wide diversity of the native peoples in our country. The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes 574 tribes in the contiguous 48 states, each contributing to the richness that now forms the Native American heritage today.
My daughter soon discovered the Pocahontas exhibit. She traced her lineage and compared her physical resemblance to that of the native princess, while my wife and I were fascinated by a near-by exhibit that compared the cultural outlook of the native people and the European settlers.
At the beginning, American Natives collaborated with the newly arriving colonists. The Powhatan Indians helped significantly in the building of Jamestown, Virginia. Without such help, the first English people in the New World would have not persisted through their first tough winter. The Wampanoag Indians helped establish the Pilgrim colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
As the migration from Europe continued, deep cultural differences emerged. The Indians hunted deer, wild turkey, and water birds, and they fished and gathered seafood. The colonists started to mow the grass for feeding cattle and horses, while their pigs destroyed traditional sources of food. The changes raised the issue of whether the two groups would ever reach a compatible co-existence. The European settlers seemed to look down on the Indians, viewing them as primitive and rude; the Native people recognized a set of values difficult for them to comprehend. They did not understand how to sell land – the air, the wind, and the water.
Sadly, violence led to violence. Broken promises driven by the American dream of “Manifest Destiny” – the desire to control all territory between the two coasts – resulted in the very sad and tragic diminishment of the American Indian presence, almost to its extinction. Yet, many Indian people today desire to participate in the mainstream of American life, while keeping their diverse native cultures and heritages alive.
We now recognize that the Native people at the first thanksgiving celebration joined in as full participants, not simply invited guests. “We’re neighborly,” said museum curator Paul Chaat Smith (Cherokee), speaking both of then and now. “We want this to work out. And we know it didn’t all work out. But that’s what we aspire to be. That’s sort of our best selves.”
Native peoples have consistently given thanks daily for nature’s gifts of sustenance. In what is sometimes called “the words that come before all else,” the Haudenosaunee (six nations from New York State and parts of southeastern Canada) Thanksgiving address includes, “with one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the food plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive.”
In the portico where we ducked to avoid getting drenched now stands the National Native American Veterans Memorial, a steel ring sculpture over a carved stone drum in a wooded area near the museum’s entrance. “It’s an article of faith in Indian country that Native Americans serve at a greater rate than basically any other group,” said Kevin Gover (Pawnee), former director of the museum and currently Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
Native Americans have served in every major military conflict in the U.S. since the Revolutionary War. “This country is our county, and our duty is to serve our country,” said veteran Roland Poncho (Alabama-Coushatta), “especially in Vietnam. Out of the 42,000 Native Americans serving in Vietnam, 90 percent were volunteers.”
“The Native Americans have been placed in different areas where economic development is not possible,” added Poncho about the resilience of Native Peoples. “Over a period of time we have overcome those barriers, and the main thing is being visible and being recognized.”
“Even though I love to celebrate our heritage everyday,” says Levi Rickert, publisher and editor of Native News Online (a Yahoo news source), “it is gratifying to see more interest given during Native American Heritage Month [November] by non-Natives who want to know more about our heritage … and about who we are today.”
The formal dedication of the National Native American Veterans Memorial happened this year on Nov 11.
That chance rain shower definitely opened more to us than just a day at the museum or a month of remembrance.