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It’s American Indian Heritage Month. Being Native American, I have to say I haven’t really thought about this month very much since its creation. Maybe because I live every day as a Native American, and November is the month that my Cherokee tribe celebrates our Friends Made or New Year holiday around the new moon. That means my thoughts are on forgiveness and friendships, fasting and cleaning my house, and letting the past go with ceremony and good food.
However, this year, working at Scholastic, I realized I should pay much more attention to this month of honoring Native American heritage! Teachers are informing students on this part of American history, tribal history—which is my history!
When I was growing up it was rare, outside of Thanksgiving and high-school American history, that I ever sat in a classroom and learned about Native Americans. But today students may be reading a book like I Am Sacajawea by Grace Norwich. Sacagawea was the brave Lemhi Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their grand expedition across the Northwest. She eventually became recognized worldwide, honored by women’s movements, had movies and books written about her—and even replace Susan B. Anthony on the American dollar coin. But the book I Am Sacajawea highlights what many Native Americans might find heroic—her courage and bravery to live and explore beyond what was familiar.
Most people in the U.S. do not know that 70 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas—separated from a close-knit tribe and its customs. They usually have a mythical idea about Natives, like they should be wearing braids and headbands. (Natives actually never wore headbands. They were just used in the movies to keep the wigs on.) They think of dark, lined faces and teepees. (We are also all different shades, and many of our tribes did not live in teepees.) And many do not realize that Native Americans, like many other diverse peoples in this country, work to maintain a semblance of their culture when there’s not much around them that looks and feels like their own. Like Sacagawea, many of us are on our own grand expedition.
I’m encouraged that students may be reading I Am Sacagawea, with its good representation of American and tribal history. Maybe it will also encourage students—regardless of background—to be like Sacagawea, willing to break out of comfort zones and learn about other nations and people. Some of those people could be their own next-door neighbors! It’s a good month to explore.
You can find I Am Sacagawea in Arrow November.
Elise McMullen works as a copywriter for Book Clubs.
November 8, 2012