Editor’s Note: Angela Calcaterra is an associate professor of English at the University of North Texas and the author of “Literary Indians: Aesthetics and Encounter in American Literature to 1920.” The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Since 1990, Americans have celebrated November as National American Indian Heritage month. But now the Trump White House, in a proclamation issued October 31, has papered over it by declaring November, 2019 “National American History and Founders Month.”
In declaring a separate American History and Founders Month during a month dedicated to awareness of Indigenous people, the White House misses a powerful opportunity. How much would we have to celebrate were we a nation that could face its founding in all of its depth and move forward with reflection and care? How much would we have to celebrate were we able to acknowledge Native people not for one month but continuously, through education, treaty acknowledgement, and meaningful dialogue about the history and future of Indigenous nations? Indigenous voices matter to all of us as we move into an ever more uncertain future. Are we willing to listen?
The depth of Native American history is readily ignored by a government that wishes to tell an American story devoid of land theft and genocide. The Founders Proclamation praises America as a nation that promotes “liberty and justice over the evil forces of oppression and indignity” and cites two examples: “overthrowing tyrannical rule in the Revolutionary War” and “liberating Europe from Nazi control during World War II.”
These actions are a crucial component of American history and they should be studied and deeply understood. So too should the genocidal policy of Indian Removal, which occurred over centuries and continues to shape the opportunities available to Indigenous people today. So too should every single historical US government policy directed toward Native nations, the vast majority of which were aimed at disenfranchising Native people, taking their lands, and erasing their cultures. As a nation, we should cultivate a deep knowledge of the Indigenous people such policies attempted to eradicate.
We should learn from the depth of their cultures and variety of their worldviews, as well as from what they share – fortitude in the face of white Americans’ efforts to get rid of them.
The White House proclamation makes no mention of Native Americans, effectively deeming their histories unnecessary to a deep understanding of America’s foundations and national identity. To be clear, the White House has not replaced Native American Heritage Month; it also issued a proclamation on that event. That document emphasizes the high rate of Native military service and the current administration’s efforts to address “illegal narcotics” and “public safety” in Native communities, as well as to “preserve the proud heritage” of Indigenous people. The main actor in this document is “My Administration.” It touts the Trump administration’s willingness to deal with “serious issues affecting” Native communities. And yet, the history behind those issues is not mentioned.
While most would acknowledge that the US nation is founded on Indigenous land, few fully understand the contours of that history. An interdisciplinary scholar who has been studying Indigenous-US relations for 15 years, I consistently work to understand and to listen to the voices of Indigenous people who know their communities and histories in the deepest way possible. As a white settler on Indigenous land, this is my responsibility. I would argue that it is the responsibility of all Americans.
The Founders Month proclamation quotes the Declaration of Independence’s claim that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It does not mention the only statement about Indigenous people in the Declaration, an accusation that the British monarch “has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions.”
By portraying Indians as “savages,” Thomas Jefferson stole away their humanity. But the truth is Native people of this period were themselves sophisticated theorists of what it meant to be human. They considered carefully what they wanted their relationships to look like, and they created guidelines to structure transnational diplomacy and relationships to the sacred and other-than-human worlds.
To give just one example, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peacemaker epic describes the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in what is now the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada. According to this remarkable account, told orally and in writing for centuries by Haudenosaunee knowledge-keepers, the Peacemaker came to stop the wars between five related nations: the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Mohawk nations. His efforts led to the creation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, still vibrant and significant today.
The five nations laid out a diplomatic protocol for transnational relations that was followed by US founders Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and others in their treaty negotiations with the Haudenosaunee and other nations during the 18th century. Most Americans know at least something about Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington; how many know about the Indigenous diplomats with whom they interacted regularly and who directly shaped their actions and thinking?
To learn about the Indigenous people central to the foundations of the American nation, look to work by scholars such as Theresa McCarthy, Lisa Brooks, Kristina Bross and Hilary E. Wyss, Colin G. Calloway, Daniel Heath Justice, Jean M. O’Brien, and many more. Go online to access free e-book versions of primary texts, including the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker epic and constitution or numerous “Indian treaties” printed by Benjamin Franklin. Or visit the websites of countless tribes and nations that outline their own histories.
There is no shortage of literature and information about Indigenous peoples in the founding era, or any era of American history for that matter. One purpose of “awareness” months is to connect citizens and students, via their teachers, with such resources. The Trump administration, in its proclamation of “National American History and Founders Month” or in its acknowledgment of Native people, could have done just that. The question we must ask is: Why didn’t they?