On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a press release proclaiming November 2020 as Native American Heritage Month.
In the press release, Newsom detailed various actions that the state of California has taken to assist Native American communities, such as ensuring tribes can more easily protect their cultural resources and making voting more accessible. However, Newsom also acknowledged the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Native American communities as a failure of the nation.
Ataya Cesspooch, a coordinator of the American Indian Graduate Student Association and a member of the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Native American Advisory Council, said Native American Heritage Month does not mean much to her.
“I’m not sure that the concept in and of itself sufficiently informs people of the ongoing struggles that Native peoples are actively engaged in today for their land and sovereignty or identifies meaningful ways to help,” Cesspooch said in an email. “Without that educational component and call to action I think the month can serve as an empty acknowledgement that doesn’t serve or benefit Indigenous peoples but rather helps the State and non-Indigenous folks feel a sense of absolution.”
Phenocia Bauerle, director of Native American Student Development at UC Berkeley, said in an email that she has “mixed feelings” about Native American Heritage Month. She noted that the purpose of Native American Heritage Month was to pay tribute to Native American traditions, and the month offered a way to celebrate Native peoples instead of perpetuating the false narrative of pilgrims and Native peoples coming together peacefully.
Bauerle added that recognition of this month also demonstrated Newsom’s commitment to Native peoples and issues.
On the other hand, Bauerle said in the email that the purpose of the month seems to be to focus on Native traditions, rather than contemporary Native culture. She noted that observance of the month is also often performative and geared toward teaching non-Native people “tidbits” about Native culture.
“Professionally, I find it challenging as this is generally the only time of year that people are interested in Native issues, and there is a lot (of) programming stuffed into heritage month that could really be spread out and enjoyed through out the year,” Bauerle said in an email.
In contrast to Bauerle, Patrick Naranjo, director of the UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Program, believes that Native American Heritage Month not only celebrates Native traditions but also promotes contemporary Native culture that has been long overlooked.
To celebrate this month, according to Bauerle, the Native community on campus has created resources and programming for both the Native community and the larger campus community. Among those programs are a socially distanced powwow, the Black, Indigenous, Men of Color Healing Circle and a weekly beading group.
Bauerle emphasized the importance of acknowledging and remembering Native communities throughout the year, rather than in November exclusively.
“People can educate themselves about Native issues,” Bauerle said in the email. “Native people are everywhere in this country. Everywhere you go you are on dispossessed Native land. Instead of thinking about Natives in the past, or relegated to reservations, people can start to see Native peoples as contemporary people who have always been here.”