November is National Native American Heritage Month! We’re celebrating by giving you a tour of some topics related to Native American history and contemporary life that we have on our minds this month. Stick around till the end for some recommendations on books, influencers, and other resources for connecting with Native American voices.
First, though, this post should rightly begin with a personal note: I write this post as someone without Native American heritage. My work with anthropology, history, and linguistics give me an academic perspective on these topics, but I can’t speak from the perspective of someone with Native American heritage and do not have first-hand experience with issues that native communities face today. As Deepgram’s team grows, I very much look forward to a day when we can bring you those perspectives too.
Before the arrival of European colonists, North America (including the territory of modern Mexico) was home to as many as 112 million people, according to some estimates. These people lived in countless communities across the continent, speaking languages from at least 30 major language families, and spread across a dozen or more distinct cultural areas. Their societies ranged from small local groups to complex, hierarchical societies like the Aztec Empire. There is ample documentation from today’s native communities as well as non-native anthropologists that ancient native societies had rich cultures. They had deep knowledge and expertise about how to live in their environments, complex belief systems and mythologies, and long-standing traditions in music and visual arts. A comprehensive survey of any one of these societies—much less all of them—would fill thousands of pages. There are many resources available to learn about native North Americans and about specific groups. We highly encourage readers of this post to add books about (and by) Native Americans to their reading list. More resources are available at the end of this post.
Initial contact between native people and colonials varied widely. In some famous cases, like that of the fall of the Aztec Empire to the Spanish conquistadors, initial contact was belligerent from the start. In other cases, Native Americans made alliances with colonists, including during the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. Indeed, the first Thanksgiving was famously a friendly gathering, although the peace did not last long after the event. There are in fact many early impressions recorded between colonists and natives. Some of these commentators recognize the dignity and humanity of their counterparts while others do not.
The years after initial contact was disastrous for native peoples. Disease, warfare, and pressure from the growing colonies increasingly disrupted and displaced Native Americans on the eastern seaboard and even farther to the west. By 1650, a mere 158 years after the initial contact between Native Americans and Europeans, the population of Native Americans had undergone demographic catastrophe. From a possible population of 112 million in 1492, the 1650 native population of the Americans had declined to no more than 6 million. This upheaval caused personal tragedies and social disruption on an incalculable scale. Native communities continue to feel the effects of this disaster hundreds of years later.
Sadly, the story of disruption does not end with the population crash of the early colonial period. From the foundation of the United States in 1776 and through the 1800s, the US government enacted policies of removal that forced Native American communities onto reservations. Some groups were forced onto reservations that were up to a thousand miles away from their traditional homelands in the so-called Indian Territory, an area that later became the state of Oklahoma. Over time, the government reduced the size of the original reservations and confined the communities to smaller and smaller areas. From the 1870’s all the way through to the mid-1900s, the US government also pursued an overtly racist policy of abducting Native American children from their families and sending them to residential Indian Schools in order to forcibly assimilate them to American culture. This practice came at a high cost to the children and their communities: personal trauma, the breakup of families, and the loss of heritage languages by younger generations. The Indian School policy also led to an unknown number of deaths of students, a tragedy that has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves.
More recently, the situation for Native Americans has begun to shift. Native Americans’ contributions to the war effort during WWII changed the narrative about their place in US society. Not long afterward, the Civil Rights movement ushered in a new national conversation about native peoples. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination by race. It was followed four years later by the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which extended the Bill of Rights to Native Americans and reinforced the sovereign status of tribal governments. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which started in the 1800s as the arm of the US government promoting assimilation and subjugation of native people, has now shifted to a service organization focused on the wellbeing of these communities. Today, it is headed by Bryan Newland, a member of the Ojibwe Nation. Furthermore, the Department of the Interior (which the BIA is a part of) also has its first-ever leader of Native American heritage: Deb Haaland. Secretary Haaland is also the first cabinet secretary of Native American descent in the history of the United States.
When it comes to native languages, the US’s history of forced removal and assimilation explains in part the perilous status of many Native American languages today. In other parts of the Americas, there are still native languages with over a million speakers—notably Nahuatl (Aztec) in Mexico, the Maya languages in Central America, Quechua and Aymara in the Andes, and Guaraní in Paraguay. The picture is different in the US and Canada, where the largest native language community is Navajo in the southwestern US at 170,000, followed by Cree in central and eastern Canada at 96,000, Ojibwe in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada at 48,000, Inuktitut in the US and the Canadian Arctic at 39,000, and Blackfoot and Sioux of US and Canadian Great Plains at 34,000 and 25,000, respectively. Unfortunately, these scattered large language communities are the exception rather than the rule. Hundreds if not thousands of native languages of North America are already extinct. At least 167 are still alive but critically endangered. Many of these endangered languages are spoken by a small number of elderly people, meaning that language transmission from generation to generation has already ceased and needs to be counteracted by language revitalization programs for these languages to survive. Language revitalization programs take a great amount of time, energy, and resources to be successful, and the results won’t truly be known for years to come. But they are crucially important and deserve the attention and support of people beyond the native communities they serve.
Native American languages should be revitalized for many reasons. First, language is a core part of identity and belonging. It serves the members of native communities by giving them a shared connection to their heritage and to each other. Furthermore, language preservation is a key part of cultural preservation due to the interconnectedness of language and culture. If culture is defined as a collection of beliefs, values, practices, traditions, and stories that tie a community together and motivate how they move through the world, then language is a core piece of infrastructure for culture. The culturally-specific vocabulary and idioms in each language make it possible to communicate that culture’s beliefs and traditions in ways that cannot be replicated in another language. Mythologies and cultural histories told in native languages contribute to a community’s sense of itself, its values, and its future. When a language is lost, many aspects of culture disappear forever along with it. What’s at stake is the survival of our society’s cultural heritage in all its richness. We all share a common interest in helping that heritage thrive.
Wrapping Up & Learning More
Today, Native Americans are innovating new ways to preserve and share their cultures. There are many Native American influencers on YouTube, TikTok, and other social media platforms that share art and commentary about the native experience with their followers. Movies including Star Wars and Fistful of Dollars are being dubbed into Navajo. The National Congress of American Indians and other political groups campaign for improvements to social services, education, environmental protection, and other issues that affect native people.
This National Native American Heritage Month, we hope for a world with more representation of native peoples, more revitalization of native languages, and more appreciation for the gifts that native cultures have given the world.
Check out these additional resources for more information:
- Indian Country Today: A weekly news source that features articles about native individuals, tribal organizations, and national trends affecting native people.
- Native American Authors: One of many lists of Native American authors to add to your reading list.
- Native-Owned Businesses: Support native-owned businesses this holiday season.
- Indigenous Influencers: Broaden your social media feed by following these indigenous influencers.
- The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian: With exhibitions in Washington, DC and online, the museum’s collection offers many resources on Native American history and contemporary issues.
- Bureau of Indian Affairs FAQs: This page answers many FAQs about the current status of reservations, their relationship to the federal and state governments, and other policy issues.