Native American Heritage Month (NAHM), also commonly recognized as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, takes place in November and is a time to acknowledge and celebrate the rich and diverse traditions, cultures, and histories of Native people.

Native Americans have contributed many things to the American way of life today. Below are some interesting facts.

Many of the foods we eat today were first grown by Native Americans. Native Americans learned to grow and use many kinds of food that we eat today including potatoes, beans, corn, peanuts, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, peppers, nuts, melons, and sunflower seeds. They also helped the European settlers survive in the New World by sharing their farming methods with them.

Many of the games we play today came from Native Americans. Canoeing, snowshoeing, tobogganing, lacrosse, relay races, tug-of-wars, and ball games are just a few of the games early Native Americans played. Many youth groups such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire and YMCA Guides have programs based largely on Native American crafts and lore.

Many words we use every day came from Native Americans. Countless Native American words and inventions have become an everyday part of our language and use. Some of these include barbecue, caribou, chipmunk, woodchuck, hammock, toboggan, skunk, mahogany, hurricane, and moccasin. Many towns, cities and rivers have names of Native American origin. Just a few of these include Seattle, Spokane, Yakima, Pocatello, Chinook, Flathead Lake, Milwaukee, Ottawa, Miami, Wichita, and Kalispell.

The idea for the U.S. government was adopted from Native Americans. Benjamin Franklin said that the idea of the federal government, in which certain powers are given to a central government and all other powers are reserved for the states, was borrowed from the system of government used by the Iroquoian League of Nations.

Many Native Americans served during World War I, World War II and other campaigns. Even though many of them were not even citizens, more than 8,000 Native Americans volunteered and served during World War I. Well over 24,000 served during World War II. One of the most notable contributions during World War II was the service of the Navajo Code Talkers, a special group of volunteers who did top-secret work using a secret code in Navajo that could not be broken. The Navajo Code Talkers helped U.S. forces achieve military victory in some of the greatest battles of the twentieth century.

Native Americans have influenced many fields. Influential Native Americans include Jim Thorpe (Olympic gold medalist), Billy Mills (Olympic gold medalist), Johnny Bench (Major League Baseball catcher), Charles Curtis (vice president of U.S.), Maria Tallchief (ballerina), Johnny Cash (entertainer), Buffy St. Marie (musician) and Will Rogers (entertainer).

Below are some modern-day influential Native Americans:

Wilma Mankiller

Tribe: Cherokee

In 1985, Wilma Mankiller served as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the first woman to serve as chief of a major Native tribe. She led for 10 years, guiding a sovereign nation whose population more than doubled from 68,000 to 170,000 during her tenure.

She revitalized the Nation’s tribal government and made significant advances in healthcare through the establishment of new health clinics, ambulance services, mobile eye care clinics, and more. Infant mortality declined and educational achievement rose in the Cherokee Nation under her leadership.

In 1998 Mankiller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton.

 

Sharice Davids

Tribe: Ho-Chunk

Elected in 2018, Sharice Davids is a lawyer and the first openly LGBTQ Native American woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

A part of the Ho-Chunk Nation, which originated in Wisconsin, Davids works on boosting economic growth and community development through projects that support the Indigenous population. She’s also worked on a national level to protect and expand access to healthcare, strengthen voter protections, and provide more resources to small business owners.

Before her work in politics, Davids was a mixed martial artist with a 5-1 amateur record prior to turning pro in 2013.

 

 

 

 

Tommy Orange

Tribe: Cheyenne, Arapaho

Tommy Orange is a novelist and writer from Oakland, California. His first book There There was one of the finalists for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and received the 2019 American Book Award.

There There told the story of several Indigenous Americans living in Oakland and their experience with urban life. It was a sensation, making the New York Times Best Seller list, earning a prize for best first book from the National Book Circle Awards, and a shortlist spot for the Andrew Carnegie Medals.

 

Deb Haaland

Tribe: Laguna Pueblo

Secretary Deb Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican.

On December 17, 2020, President Joe Biden announced that he would nominate Haaland to serve as Secretary of the Interior. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 15, 2021.

After running for New Mexico Lieutenant Governor in 2014, Secretary Haaland became the first Native American woman to be elected to lead a State Party. She is one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress. In Congress, she focused on environmental justice, climate change, missing and murdered indigenous women, and family-friendly policies.

For more information about Native American history, click here.

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