Celebrating Native American heritage

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 10:40 AM

“As the first people to live on the land we all cherish, American Indians and Alaska Natives have profoundly shaped our country's character and our cultural heritage. Today, Native Americans are leaders in every aspect of our society -- from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the battlefield.

“This month, we celebrate and honor the many ways American Indians and Alaska Natives have enriched our Nation, and we renew our commitment to respecting each tribe's identity while ensuring equal opportunity to pursue the American dream.”

Those words, from the presidential proclamation declaring November American Indian Heritage Month, sum up well why the observances at UNC this month are so important and appropriate.

The university’s ties with that heritage are both physical and emotional.

“It’s the relationships to a place, more than simply the place itself, that we work to understand and struggle through,” Daniel Heath Justice from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told an audience at a program kicking off the month last week.

UNC was built on land once inhabited by the Shakori, Eno and Sissipahaw peoples, Chris Teuton observed in a report by The Herald-Sun’s April Dudash on Wednesday.

Teuton said North Carolina is home to the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi, and Native Americans have attended the university since Henry Owl became the first person of color to graduate in 1929.

Events at UNC this month will include a seminar on “The American Indian Higher Education Experience,” a musical performance “by unheard voices,” a Morehead Planetarium program on “Native American skies,” beading lessons and an “American Indian Heritage Celebration.”

A celebratory theme quite rightly permeates the program.

But the month is, especially for those of us not Native American, a time to reflect on the darker side of this country’s relationship with its original inhabitants.

“In paying tribute to Native American achievements, we must also acknowledge the parts of our shared history that have been marred by violence and tragic mistreatment. For centuries, Native Americans faced cruelty, injustice, and broken promises,” the presidential proclamation notes. “As we work together to forge a brighter future, we cannot shy away from the difficult aspects of our past.”

Those words ring true, and provide a backdrop on campus and beyond for a month that, as NC’s website page about the events, “recognizes contemporary American Indian tribes and individuals as active participants in American society and honors their histories, cultures and achievements.  This month also marks a time to note the existence of American Indian tribes and reflect on their significance in American history and contributions to American culture.”

We join in those sentiments.