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A Closer Look: Native American Heritage Month

On August 3, 1990, President George H. W. Bush took a landmark step to honoring America’s Tribal people by declaring the month of November as Native American Heritage Month. Since that time, most individuals see November as a time to celebrate these rich and diverse cultures, and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people to the United States. Importantly, Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.

It is befitting then, that this November marks another historical achievement for Native Americans: Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo people and Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk nation became the first Native American women elected to Congress for New Mexico and Kansas, respectively. Congresswoman Davids is also the first openly LGBTQ Kansan elected to Congress.

These victories, however, did not come easily. Indeed, it has been nearly a century since Native Americans born in the United States were granted citizenship under the Snyder Act of 1924. This is true despite the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, had already granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race. But even with the passing of this citizenship bill, Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections because the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who had the right to vote. By 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a provision of its state constitution that kept Indians from voting. Other states eventually followed suit, concluding in 1962—nearly four decades after the Snyder Act—when New Mexico became the last state to enfranchise Native Americans.

Notwithstanding the grant of the lawful right to vote in every state, Native Americans continued to suffer from the same mechanisms and strategies that kept African Americans from exercising that right, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation. According to the New York Times, Congresswomen Haaland’s and Davids’ success came only after “decades of grass-roots organizing, legal battles to redraw voting districts favoring white candidates, new sources of campaign money and the harnessing of visceral reactions to President Trump’s use of slurs against Native Americans.” Representative of the Native American spirit, Congresswomen Haaland’s and Davids’ success was the result of cutting their teeth for years in the communities that elected them and it teaches us all this Heritage Month a lesson about the walls—tangible or otherwise—that can be overcome with perseverance. “After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities” (quoting V.S. Naipaul).