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Ditch The Headdress, Read Up On Native Authors: Here’s How You Can Celebrate Native American Heritage Month Respectfully

November is Native American Heritage month. And like most commemorative months dedicated to honoring the culture and history of an oppressed people in the U.S., Native American Heritage Month is an insufficient gesture. Added onto that, November is often a a time when stereotypes of Native people get reinforced. A month of supposed ‘appreciation’ and ‘honoring’ of oppressed communities, can easily turn into one replete with cultural appropriation and prejudice.

So we decided we’d round up a few things that you can do —and not do— to celebrate in a positive and healthy spirit. 

1. Don’t desecrate traditional, sacred Native objects by buying or wearing them as props.

More often than not, we find ‘Native’, ‘Tribal’, or ‘Navajo’ inspired goods in stores, what you might not know is that they could be sacred Native artifacts and spiritual items. Objects like the canupa pipe or a warbonnet —commonly known as ‘headdress’— are part of Native spiritual culture and they should never be worn as a costume.

For Native people, practicing their spirituality was illegal in this country, up until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Before then, Native people were beaten, jailed, and even killed for practicing their ancestral beliefs. What remains of tribal cultures customs, and ceremonies has been paid for in blood.

Among Native people, the warbonnet was only given to those who earned each and every eagle feather for their bravery, self-sacrifice, and great deeds of valor —doesn’t seem very appropriate to wear one as a costume or prop now, does it? Disrespecting the warbonnet is a terrible wrong and dishonors the likes of all who earned them with pride.

2. Don’t make children wear redface and reenact the re-telling of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving reenactments are a whitewashed version of early U.S. history. The retelling of this story only glorifies colonization when we all know that the truth isn’t so pretty. In actuality, an official “day of Thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots” was said to have been proclaimed by Massachusetts Bay governor William Bradford in 1637, celebrating the slaughter of up to 700 Pequot men, women, and children.

3. Don’t promote the fetishization of Native women.

We should all know this by now, but since not everyone acts like it, we’ll say it louder for the people in the back —Do not dehumanize women of color. We’re not your fetish and will not be devalued any longer. Reducing Native women to a fetish is oppressive and objectifying. It subjugates Native women while denying their agency.

Native women face higher rates of violence than the general population. A report last year by the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center found that more than half of Native women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and 96% of those who commit sexual violence against Native women are non-Native.

4. Don’t support racist mascots.

It’s 2019 and the sports team, Washington R*dskins, literally has a racial slur in its name. It mocks Native identity, it reinforces ignorant and racist caricatures of a whole culture.

5. Don’t pretend to know better than Native people on Native subjects.

I’d like to believe that Native people know more about being Native because well…they are Native, they’ve lived the experience daily. Native people know more about their heritage than non-Natives do and silencing their voices is equal to erasing them.

What’s more, don’t bother Natives on social media by sending them the worst instances of cultural appropriation and racial violence that you may stumble upon while scrolling. Natives who are present in online spaces see it often. Even if you mean well, for Native people, constant exposure to this sort of toxic environment is damaging and exhausting.

6. For the love of God, don’t buy culturally appropriative products from Non-Native vendors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, do not buy Native imitations at places like Urban Outfitters or other stores who have actually been on trial for stealing names, references and designs from Native people.

Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, “it is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.” Violators may face civil or criminal penalties of a fine up to $250,000 or five years behind bars. Before buying goods from a purported Native vendor, ask them if they are following this law, and what tribe they belong to. It is not offensive to ask a person who claims to be Native what tribe they hail from. Tribal identification is commonplace and accepted among Natives.

7. Do teach real Native history to children and read up on works by Native scholars and authors.

Introduce real and accurate Native history —including harvest feasts—into school events. Invite Native speakers, authors and scholars to speak to students about Indigenous peoples. It’s important that children see Natives as contemporary living people who are still here.

8. Do respect Natives’ beliefs.

It’s pretty easy; respect other people’s religion and belief systems as you would your own. There are many differences among tribes, but in general, they all share a reverence for the land, for animals and plants, for the bonds of community, for the wisdom of the elderly and for the contributions of their ancestors. Their beliefs and traditions might differ from what you grew up learning, but Native perspectives are just as compelling and valuable as everyone’s, and they should be respected as such.

9. Do respect and honor Native-Veterans.

Natives have served in the U.S. military at a higher per capita rate than any other ethnic group in the 20th century, and in the military actions following September 11, 2001, Native men and women veterans served at a higher rate than veterans of all other ethnic groups, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. As we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country while protecting the freedoms and ideals we hold dear, many of our fellow Americans remain unaware of the major contributions Native Americans have made to our nation’s armed forces.

10. Do buy authentic Native goods sold by Native artisans and businesses.

Stores like Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie, are taking valuable business away from actual Native American artists and small businesses. Support Native American creativity, history, and legacy, and help create a much-needed economic boost in Indian Country by shopping from small, authentic Native businesses. This site has enlisted Native-owned businesses you can shop from online —now you have no excuse.

Notice any needed corrections? Please email us at corrections@wearemitu.com