October is Native American Heritage Month and the perfect opportunity to explore the vibrant world of Native American culture and traditions. Native American culture is an intricate tapestry woven from the threads of history, spirituality, and connection to the land. Threatened by systematic erasure, it’s a culture that not only deserves respect and appreciation but preservation; it deserves to be seen, heard, and valued. So, let’s discover what we can do to celebrate and sustain Native American heritage.
Celebrating Native American Culture
Native American culture is a treasure trove of traditions, languages, and spirituality. It’s a part of America’s rich heritage that often remains hidden in the shadows of mainstream society, unknown or misunderstood. But why is it so important to preserve and celebrate Native American culture?
One significant reason is that Native American culture represents the profound richness of our nation’s history. With over 500 recognized tribes in the United States alone, each boasting unique customs, languages, and traditions, it’s a testament to the diversity of human experiences.
Another prominent reason is that historically indigenous history, traditions, and culture are diminished and devalued. Native communities have suffered injustice and repression for centuries. Celebrating and honoring Native American heritage, then, is vital to uplifting their culture, raising awareness, and restoring justice to their communities.
Understanding the Diversity of Native American Culture & Their Connection to the Land
Even before colonization, the land that became the United States was a country with hundreds of different Native American cultures, languages, and traditions coexisting within its borders. There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of “Native American,” nothing that fits into one, homogeneous picture. Instead, we have a beautiful mosaic of communities, each with its unique story to tell.
These tribes hail from different regions and environments, and this diversity is reflected in their traditions and way of life. Each culture is intrinsically tied to the land. It shapes their identities, spirituality, and cultural practices. From traditional foods to art and materials used in regalia, the land leaves its mark on every aspect of their lives.
For instance, the Three Sisters farming method, practiced by many tribes including the Iroquois, Lakota, and Cherokee, involves the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash. These three crops are interplanted in a way that maximizes their mutual benefits, a technique that relies on a deep understanding of the local soil and climate conditions.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Haida and Tlingit tribes have a deep connection to their coastal environment. They are renowned for their intricate and massive totem poles, which are carved from the towering red cedar trees found in their region. These totem poles serve as cultural and artistic symbols that represent their ancestral stories and traditions, and they showcase the abundance of the forests that surround them.
The Hopi people, located in the Southwest, have adapted their agricultural practices to the harsh desert climate. They have perfected techniques like dry farming and terraced agriculture to cultivate crops in the arid landscape. The construction of their villages, including the famous Hopi mesas, reflects their need to optimize water usage and make the most of the limited resources available in their environment.
For Native Americans the land is not merely the place they live; it’s a source of sustenance, spirituality, and cultural inspiration.
Cultural Traditions of the Lakota People
Now, let’s shine a brighter spotlight on just one of the many incredible Native American tribes – the Lakota People. They reside primarily in the Northern Plains of the United States, and the founder of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota), grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
For the Lakota, the flavors of wild game are central to their diet. The bison, often referred to as buffalo, is a vital source of sustenance, providing them with meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, and bones for tools.
Furthermore, foraged plants played a significant role in the Lakota diet. They gathered a variety of wild plants and berries, such as chokecherries and wild turnips, from their surrounding land. These foraged ingredients are not only nutritious but also add diverse flavors to their meals.
You can also witness the Lakota’s relationship to the land through their craftsmanship. They often used porcupine quills in intricate beadwork. They were dyed and meticulously woven into patterns on clothing, moccasins, and accessories, showcasing their artistry and connection to wildlife.
Furthermore, they often use various materials and gemstones with unique cultural significance for jewelry making. These jewelry pieces, whether necklaces, bracelets, or earrings, are not merely adornments but carry spiritual and historical significance, passed down through generations as a way to connect with their heritage and the natural world.
The regalia of the Lakota tribes is another vibrant reflection of their connection to the land. Feathers, often sourced from local birds like eagles and hawks, are a prominent feature in Lakota regalia. These feathers are not only symbols of strength and spirituality but also demonstrate a deep respect for the winged creatures that inhabit their environment.
Fabrics used in Lakota regalia often incorporate patterns and designs inspired by the environment. Traditional Lakota star quilts, for example, feature intricate geometric patterns reminiscent of the night sky or the landscape’s natural formations.
One of the most sacred ceremonies among the Lakota is the Sun Dance. This days-long ceremony takes place in the summer involving dancing and spiritual practices, and serves as a profound tribute to their connection to the Earth and the universe.
During the Sun Dance, participants traditionally fast, dance, and engage in purifying and piercing rituals, symbolizing sacrifice and renewal. It’s an awe-inspiring display of faith and devotion. Today, this ritual remains a vital part of Lakota cultural and spiritual identity and is held on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota.
How to Support Native American Communities and Why It Is Important
Today Native American communities still face a multitude of challenges. Poverty, limited access to education and healthcare, and issues related to land rights and cultural preservation are all pressing concerns.
For example, people living on the reservations of South Dakota grapple with high rates of poverty and unemployment. These challenges have deep historical roots and are exacerbated by contemporary economic and social issues. But there’s hope, and part of the solution lies in raising awareness and supporting Native American communities.
Responsible Giving and Philanthropy
When it comes to making a difference, it’s important to do so ethically. It’s not just about throwing money at the problem. It’s about understanding the specific needs of the community and supporting them in a way that respects their autonomy and cultural integrity.
Ensure Charitable Giving Benefits Native American People
To ensure your philanthropy benefits Native American people effectively, here are some tips:
Research: Dive deep into the organizations and initiatives you want to support. Ensure they have a track record of transparency, accountability, and a history of working closely with indigenous communities.
Empowerment: Seek initiatives that empower indigenous communities rather than perpetuate forced dependency. It’s about supporting tribal sovereignty and preserving cultural traditions.
Running Strong Programs Sustain Native American Culture and Traditions
Running Strong for American Indian Youth® is one organization making an everyday, sustainable impact on Native American communities. We are tackling issues like poverty, education, and cultural preservation head-on. Supporting programs like Running Strong can greatly benefit Native American communities and ensure their culture and traditions are preserved. Here are a few examples:
When Running Strong for American Indian Youth® was formed in 1986, getting clean, safe drinking water to the residents of Pine Ridge was one of our top priorities. Previously, Running Strong satisfied this need by drilling water wells, but since the Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System was created, we are now focusing on connecting Native American homes to the water supply line through our program Mni Wiconi (Water Is Life).
Running Strong also supports initiatives to preserve knowledge and traditions passed down from a declining generation of elders and teach them to the next generation of Native American youth. By partnering with groups that have culturally-based programs such as schools, cultural societies, traditional youth camps, and museums, we are helping to save and share tribal cultures.
Many Native American communities on reservations live without consistent access to high-quality grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables. Running Strong’s organic gardens and food programs tackle malnutrition and food insecurity by providing healthy meals and fresh produce to Native American children and their families.
We also help establish community gardens, household gardens, and communal greenhouse programs, ensuring that cultural aspects are included and teaching communities about how to improve food choices and how to plant traditional gardens.
Other Ways to Get Involved With Native American Heritage Month
Native Land Awareness
Here’s a simple but powerful gesture – acknowledging that you are on Native land. Land acknowledgment is about recognizing that the land you live on today was originally inhabited by indigenous people, and it’s a way of honoring Native American history and presence. You can participate in this by:
- Educating Yourself: Start by learning about the indigenous peoples who historically inhabited and continue to inhabit the land you are on. Research their history, culture, and contributions to the region.
- Signing Our Pledge: Starting on October 9th, Indigenous People’s day, Running Strong is asking that our supporters sign a pledge acknowledging that they are on native land, pledge to be a good ally, and continue to support native communities. You can encourage others in your community or organization to participate in signing our pledge as well. This can create a more inclusive and shared recognition of indigenous peoples’ contributions.
- Taking Action: Reflect on what further action can be taken to support indigenous communities. This could involve supporting indigenous-led initiatives, supporting organizations like Running Strong, or advocating for indigenous rights and issues.
Buy Native-Made Goods
Support Native American artisans and entrepreneurs by purchasing products that are legitimately made or sourced from indigenous communities. This isn’t just about economic support; it’s about honoring, respecting, and preserving cultural traditions, ensuring their stories are told.
Avoid Cultural Appropriation
Lastly, with the holidays just around the corner, it’s important to talk about cultural appropriation. Especially during events like Halloween, it’s all too common. Please avoid Native American costumes and accessories that reduce their culture to a stereotype, and instead, celebrate their culture respectfully and educate others about its significance.
Engaging With Native American Culture and Traditions
In conclusion, preserving Native American heritage is not just a noble endeavor; it’s our responsibility as stewards of this diverse and culturally rich nation.
You can engage with Native American culture in meaningful ways by supporting organizations like Running Strong. We encourage you to learn more about all our programs and stay connected with our ongoing work via social media:
- Visit us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RunningStrongforAmericanIndianYouth/
- Visit us on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/RunStrong4AIY
- Visit us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/runstrong4aiy/
Together, we can ensure that the vibrant tapestry of Native American heritage is protected and their communities continue to thrive for many generations to come.