November 2022 Issue

Indigenous Identity in America: The Citizenship that Doesn’t Seem to Count

Tyuh Manning

As an international student, one of the greatest marvels of the American education system is how much time, especially in the fall, we take off from school in recognition and respect of cultures – Western or not – and the holidays they observe. There is something of an explicit intentionalism with which these disruptions are facilitated – as if to say: there is room for everyone in America, from anywhere in the world. Yet ironically those who have had the most difficulty demarcating space and uplifting their identities and voices in this country are the people who are native to it. 

October and November exemplify this most glaringly: wherein somehow the governance that informs the allocation of calendar days for the celebration of non-American holidays becomes the same system that struggles with its own heritage, and what to do with it when Indigenous People’s Day comes around, engaging in an awkward standoff with Columbus Day, which often ends with the negation of Native American visibility that should be just as intrinsic in the observance of the day.

November is given the designation of National Native American Heritage month. But in spite of this, Thanksgiving consistently supersedes the opportunity for national engagement on the topic of Native American visibility. It is incredibly fascinating to witness how citizenships and histories take precedence over others in this country, and how a holiday like Thanksgiving, where families throughout the country break bread and exercise gratitude for the lives they have here, becomes a greater aspect of national identity than the Native American lives lost and buried beneath the foundation of these festivities. The bottom line is that a conversation about the American social climate in November will scarcely yield a Native American response. It will amplify other values and priorities of the national consciousness: the opportunity for a break from work and school, and the chance to satisfy consumerist compulsions through the conduit that is Black Friday.

Being raised in the Caribbean and coming to the United States opened a whole new world of cultural sensitivity, but still revealed an interesting unsureness with which to approach the Indigenous community directly and as a national whole. It is both the beauty and the brunt of this country that the cultural diversity brought about by its capacity to unite people from around the world, is the source of contention as these groups vie for visibility and time to uplift their individual communities.

It is also a disappointing and completely unnecessary competition – perpetuated by limited opportunity to highlight the beautiful cultural entities which contribute so much to the definition of the American physical reality. Everybody who inhabits this country deserves to be appreciated for who they are and what they bring to its dynamic – especially those who are descendants of its first settlers.

As one draws nearer to the Capital – the museums and governmental tenants at the heart of the country in Washington DC do their part in public demonstration and generation of respect for the Indigenous community in November – with events scheduled throughout the month that consistently cultivate spaces for research and learning, but what takes places outside of the nation’s political center is not consistent with the activities within. The fact that the national interest in the Indigenous community loses radius once it travels further outward from the capital illustrates a widespread disconnection from Native American history and its people’s experiences – a history which is as significant as the white man’s, for it was the first.

Unfortunately, Indigenous settlers though scattered throughout the world have been the benefactors of painfully similar experiences and having suffered at such great magnitude in America, their plight has not been documented and discussed to the same extent as their cultural peers, although we annually receive time off from the working week in “observation” of it.

When all is said and done, one day in October or one month which goes overlooked is not enough to influence the national mindset about Indigenous identity and the validity of their citizenship and experience in the United States. Their citizenship doesn’t seem to count here as it should, and it would be wonderful to witness the narrative shift around how Native Americans are perceived and regarded in the country. A historical moment of this kind would manufacture a level of mindfulness within the average American citizen that could radically change the culture of this country and positively impact the realization of an inclusive American Dream within the imagined future. It is an inspirational image of what is possible, that has everything to do with what has to be done right now.

New Yorkers can start at the National Museum of the American Indian: a project initiated by The Smithsonian Institution that exhibits Indigenous artifacts and pieces of the larger Indigenous material culture in an eloquently curated space adjacent to Battery Park. The complex, inside and out, creates an ambient and thoughtful site for the active upliftment of the Amerindian voice. A visit to this center of cultural vitality is completely free so that you leave with more than what you came with - the same amount of money in your pocket, but a colored perspective on Indigenous instrumentality both nationally, and more specifically within the context of this city, where Native Americans are the oxygen to the lungs of this urban network in so many more ways than we realize.

The funds you save by visiting this museum can be donated online to keep the organization functional, where one will also find a wealth of online resources and exhibitions - making the question of accessible information something which transcends citizenship of the 50 states and transforms Indigenous identity into a document of the world citizen available to all. This National Native American Heritage month I encourage all readers to take the opportunities available for research on the first settlers of this nation, and how the seeds they sowed centuries ago now support the foundation of this powerful democracy.

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