November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and contributions of America’s original inhabitants, while raising awareness about the past and present discrimination, violence and inequities they have historically encountered and continue to face today.

This comes at a time when the world is reeling from the heartbreaking discoveries of the remains of thousands of children who were forcefully taken from their homes, abused, neglected and died at the hands of Indian Residential Schools. From the 1860s towards the end of the 20th century, the purpose of these schools was to “Kill the Indian, save the man” by destroying and assimilating indigenous cultures. It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools. (BBC)

And yet, despite these efforts to erase all signs of Native American culture, reminders are everywhere –from sports team mascots to butter logos. Unfortunately, these depictions only serve to perpetuate negative stereotypes and do not represent the people they are portraying, leaving them to feel further disenfranchised, marginalized and forgotten.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are currently 566 Native American and Alaska Native tribes that are recognized by the federal government. Each tribe is distinct in their own way, with their own culture and traditions. And yet, due to the US government’s legacy of abhorrent Indian policies, the traditions, heritages and languages of these tribes are in danger of being lost forever. Protecting these customs and helping Native Americans reclaim their culture is critical to the survival of these tribal communities.


1. Avoid Cultural Appropriation.

According to Fordham Law Professor, Susan Scafidi in her book Who Owns Culture?, the definition of cultural appropriation is, “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” (www.wellandgood.com)

Let’s Talk about Smudging.

“This is a medicine for many of our people who have used these plants since time immemorial as central elements of our spirituality and healing.” – Elicia Goodsoldier of the Dine’ and Spirit Lake Dakota Nations

Up until 1978 (just 43 years ago!) and the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act, traditional and spiritual practices like smudging were considered illegal for Native Americans and had to be performed in secret or risk jail time. For non-Natives who want to clear negative energy from their space through smudging, it is important to respect the cultural rituals and protocols of this sacred practice while acknowledging the history of colonial predation and the suppression that comes along with their commodification of smudging. Learn more about the practice of smudging here.

2. Buy Authentically Made Native Products.

“It’s such a whitewashing of our ways. The plants they sell are gathered by an unknown profit-seeking hand. They ignore the spiritual connection between human and plant.”  – Elicia Goodsoldier

According to the the Indian Arts & Crafts Act (IACA), passed in 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.” (www.doi.gov/iacb/act)

Finding an ethically sourced smudge that is harvested correctly and directly from Native Americans will not only ensure that the plants were handled with care and not overharvested but it will support and protect the local tribal economy.

Here’s a list of authentic Native goods from our friends at Beyond Buckskin that you can check out and support.

3. Pay tribute to the original inhabitants of the land: A Spotlight On the True Native New Yorkers

The Lenape were New York City’s first inhabitants. Living on the “hilly island” of Manhatta and with roots dating back thousands of years before the arrival of the European settlers, the Lenape, or “the people,” were the first Indians to come into contact with the Dutch in the 1600s.

Back in grade school, we learned that in 1626 the Lenape sold what we know today as Manhattan for $24 worth of beads and trinkets to the Dutch. What we didn’t learn in our textbooks was that the Lenape did not consider this transaction an official sale of their land. The concept of selling land was foreign to them, and saw this, instead, as a chance to share their land with the Dutch, stating they “had only sold the grass on the land, not the land itself.”

The Dutch, on the other hand, assumed ownership and renamed Manhatta, New Amsterdam and built a wall around the land, forcing a mass migration of the Lenape from their ancestral land. Today the Lenape Diaspora is spread throughout the U.S. and Canada. (www.smithsonianmag.com)

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