The Denver area today is a hub for Native Americans.
It was approximately between 1945 and 1965 when Native Americans found Denver to be a desirable place to find work, said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the Denver-based American Indian College Fund. This time period is known as the Relocation and Termination period, when Native Americans were removed from reservations and relocated to urban areas, Crazy Bull said.
Awareness of the plight of Native American communities rose in the 1960s and `70s, and this included concern for the lack of representation and visibility of tribal members in every corner of American life, Crazy Bull said.
“We saw a desire in Native American communities to create pathways for more people in public to see us,” Crazy Bull said. “Native American Heritage Month and Indigenous Peoples’ Day emerged out of a desire for that kind of visibility.”
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush established Native American Indian Heritage Month, which is celebrated every November.
“Native American Indian Heritage Month is a focused educational time,” Crazy Bull said.
‘Our own way of knowing the world’
Crazy Bull grew up in South Dakota and takes pride in being a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota nation, part of the Seven Council Fires. Each of the Council Fires is made up of individual tribal bands, based on kinship, dialect and geographic proximity.
“Indigenous people have our own way of knowing the world and our own knowledge system focusing on kinship and relationships,” Crazy Bull said. “We believe in generosity and industriousness, and being responsible in our actions and the gifts that people bring to us in their talent.”
How to celebrate Native American Heritage Month
The American Indian College Fund offers a number of ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. It begins with Indige-Bration, an exclusive virtual concert. The celebration continues with a month-long Facebook challenge that includes a Walk and Learn event, an instructional social dance video, book clubs, watch parties and panels. Crazy Bull will cap the celebration month with a live discussion.
Recognizing Native Americans during Thanksgiving
“A lot of people have come to learn that the history behind Thanksgiving dinner (and) the stories we learned in school, are not exactly correct,” said NancyJo Houk, chief marketing and development officer for the American Indian College Fund. “I think it’s wonderful that people are starting to hear and understand that the truth behind the story of Thanksgiving isn’t what we all thought that it was.”
Houk said there are ways to celebrate the holiday while also honoring Native Americans. She suggests reciting a land recognition or incorporating a traditional native dish to the meal. The college fund also provides resources of accurate history to share and discuss during the meal.
Beyond Native American Heritage Month
The idea is that Indigenous people will be honored beyond the month of November. That starts with research and self-education, Crazy Bull said. Her suggestions include taking advantage of opportunities to meet people of different cultures at social gatherings, work or club meetings. She said to also pay close attention to how Native American people are represented in schools, and take note of historical references in coursework to ensure there is representation of Indigenous peoples, Crazy Bull said.
Additionally, the Front Range boasts many nonprofits that serve Indigenous communities across the U.S. that people can learn more about. For example, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society on the University of Colorado-Denver campus and the American Indian Academy of Denver. And, there’s the Native American Rights Fund based in Boulder and Longmont’s First Nations Development Institute.
There’s also the American Indian Academy of Denver, a free charter school focused on student-driven STEAM curriculum that was established to support Native American and Latinx students.
It provides a “learning in an environment where children get a lot of opportunity to honor their Indigenious community,” Crazy Bull said.
Also in Denver, the city and county’s Commission of Indian Affairs “strives to support visibility of Native people in Denver, and also legislation,” Crazy Bull said, adding that “Colorado itself has passed some laws that were really important, like banning mascots, (and) legislation supporting tuition support of members of tribes.”
For the arts, Crazy Bull points to the North American Indian Cultures exhibition hall at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Denver Art Museum’s Indigenous Arts of North America gallery. Both offer opportunities to experience Native American culture any time of the year.
Another resource is the Native-Lands app, which helps people discover what lands were the traditional homes of specific Indengous peoples.
Other suggestions to celebrate and honor Native Americans include learning how to cook traditional native foods and supporting Native American-owned businesses, such as Denver’s own Tocabe, an American Indian eatery. There are also volunteer opportunities with organizations such as the Denver Indian Resource Center, the Denver Indian Center or Spirit of the Sun.
“In the U.S., there’s this practice of trying to celebrate diversity in framed ways, so Native American Heritage Month is an example of that social practice of drawing attention to groups of people by setting aside time for them to be recognized,” Crazy Bull said. “But we are here everyday. And we view Native American Heritage Month as just an opportunity to showcase the different accomplishments and different challenges Native Americans face.”