Not too long ago, I checked my calendar to see what important events I had scheduled for October. That’s when I saw it. My calendar listed October 14th as Indigenous Peoples’ Day – the same day as Columbus Day. Who knew such a holiday existed? Not me.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in South Dakota in 1989. It is intended to celebrate and honor the history and culture of Native Americans (or “first people,” as some tribes prefer to be called). Following South Dakota’s lead, various cities and states now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of, or in addition to, Columbus Day. The states that have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday, in addition to South Dakota, are Alaska, North Carolina, New Mexico, Maine, and Vermont. A few of the cities that have adopted this holiday include Albuquerque, Berkeley, Boulder, Denver, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. Sadly, the state of Texas (which derives its name from a Native word meaning “friend”) has not yet adopted the holiday. But the county of Bexar (San Antonio) and the cities of Austin, Corpus Christi, and Dallas have.
I recently attended a musical performed by the Dallas Theater Center. At the beginning of the performance, the theater did something I don’t recall it ever doing before. In addition to telling everyone to turn off their cell phones, the theater acknowledged and honored (I’m paraphrasing here) the history and culture of the Wichita tribe, whose ancestors once lived on the land where the theater now stands.
Even though I was born and raised in Utah, a state deriving its name from the Ute tribe, and even though I graduated from the University of Utah, whose mascot is the Ute (as represented by an eagle), I have never had much interest in Native American history and culture. That began to change when I saw the film, Hostiles.[i] This movie tells the story of a legendary U.S. Army captain whose superior officer orders him to escort a dying Cheyenne chief to his ancestral homeland so he can be buried with his fathers. The captain does so reluctantly, as he and this chief have been bitter enemies for most of their respective lives. But as they travel together and fight common enemies along the way, they begin to see each other as fellow humans, and more alike than different. Here is my favorite scene from the film:
I believe, like the captain and chief in Hostiles, if we make an effort to see our enemies from their perspective, our hatred of them will evolve into respect and understanding.
Not long after watching Hostiles, I saw Woman Walks Ahead,[ii] a film inspired by the true story of how a portrait painter, Catherine Weldon, travels to the West to paint the portrait of Chief Sitting Bull. Here is one of my favorite scenes:
I enjoyed the film because it painted (pun intended) Sitting Bull as a real, complex person rather than the typical stereotype of Native Americans. At one point in the movie, Ms. Weldon asks Sitting Bull if he liked New York City. His answer is insightful and says a lot about our competing cultures: “[New York has] too many people with too much. Too many people with nothing at all. Your society values its people by how much you have. Ours by how much we give away.”
Unfortunately, we learned many of our stereotypes about Native Americans from watching movies. The documentary, Reel Injun,[iii] traces the history of Native Americans in film. In the heyday of Westerns (think John Wayne), Native Americans were always the savages, and the heroes were always the cowboys. Graham Greene, a Native American actor, tells about growing up and playing cowboys and Indians with his Native American friends. Despite their ethnicity, everyone wanted to be one of the cowboys, because if you an Indian, you were the loser. Always. Here is the trailer to this excellent documentary:
If you love movies or are interested in Native Americans, you will love this film (you can watch it for free on tubitv.com).
In the 1970s, movies started portraying Native Americans more realistically. Dances with Wolves was one of the first of those movies, but despite its more sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, the film still had a white man as its central figure. In 1992, The Last of the Mohicans did a better job, but again, the central character was a white man who had been raised by the Mohicans.
In the film, Smoke Signals,[iv] a coming-of-age story of a young Native American, the makers of the movie (who were Native Americans), tried hard to dispel some of the common stereotypes of Native Americans. Here is one of my favorites scenes:
As I began studying Native American peoples and cultures, I learned some fantastic things about their history and culture. Many of them are sad. Here are a few:
- Native American words or tribes are the sources of half of the names of U.S. states.
- There are more than 566 federally recognized Native American tribes (and many more that are not recognized). There are more than 1,500 Native American languages. None of these languages is written (other than pictographs).
- The word “Sioux” is a Chippewa word meaning “enemy” that the French adopted for the Lakota people. “Lakota,” however, means “where the people of peace dwell.”
- Native Americans invented the sport of lacrosse.
- The United States did not grant full citizenship to American Natives until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Congress passed the Act, in part, as recognition of the more than 8,000 Native Americans who served in the military during World War I. Over 24,000 Native Americans served in World War II, including the Navajo Code Talkers, who were a select group of volunteers who created an unbreakable secret code based on the unwritten Navajo language. The film, Windtalkers is the story of the use and importance of this code to the war effort.
- Only about 22 percent of the approximately 5.2 million Native Americans live on reservations. Surprisingly, over 75 percent of residents who do live on reservations are non-Natives.
- Approximately 28 percent of Native Americans live below the poverty line. The life expectancy of Native Americans is five years lower than other Americans. Native Americans are 177 percent more likely to die from diabetes than non-Natives, 500 percent more likely to die from tuberculous, and 82 percent more likely to die from suicide. Native American young adults are twice as likely to die before the age of 24 than any other ethnic group in America. Native American infant mortality rates are 60 percent higher than the rate for Caucasians.
- When Columbus reached the New World in 1492, scholars estimate that as many as 18 million Native Americans lived in North America. By 1900, war and disease had reduced their population to about 250,000 in the United States and 100,000 in Canada.
- Native American women experience the highest rates of assault of any group in the United States. A young girl born on a reservation has more than a one in three chance of being abused during her life.
- Many celebrities claim to have Native American ancestry, including Cher, Lou Diamond Phillips, Anne Hathaway, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Burt Reynolds, Johnny Depp, Kevin Costner, Dolly Parton, the Jonas brothers, and Elvis Presley.
My interest in Native Americans inspired me to make one significant character in my new book, Snow Angel Sam, a Native American. It is a sequel to my earlier Christmas book, The Presents of Angels. I hope to get it published on Amazon by the end of October. Please check it out. You will learn some things about Native American culture and their Christmas traditions. Regardless, I hope all of us can develop an understanding of, and respect for, Native Americans, and all other persons who might be different from ourselves.
- Production Companies: Grisbi Productions, Le, and Waypoint Entertainment
- Director: Scott Cooper
- Screenwriter: Scott Cooper (based on the manuscript by Donals E. Stewart)
- Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pyke, and Wes Studi
- Release date: January 26, 2018
[ii] Woman Walks Ahead:
- Production Companies: Black Bicycle Entertainment, Potboiler Productions, and The Bedford Falls Company
- Director: Susanna White
- Screenwriter: Steven Knight
- Starring: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, and Sam Rockwell
- Release date: June 29, 2018
[iii] Reel Injun:
- Production Companies: National Film Board of Canada and Rezolution Pictures
- Director: Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge
- Screenwriters: Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge
- Starring: Adam Beach, Russell Means, and Chris Eyre
- Release date: June 18, 2010
[iv] Smoke Signals:
- Production Companies: ShadowCatcher Entertainment and Welb Film Pursuits Ltd.
- Director: Chris Eyre
- Screenwriter: Sherman Alexie
- Starring: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, and Irene Bedard
- Release date: November 27, 1998