Celebrate Native American Heritage Month

11/29/2021

November is Native American Heritage Month! It’s a time to celebrate the rich histories, diverse cultures and important contributions of our nation’s first people. Interior works to honor the nation’s trust responsibilities and special commitments to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Learn more about how Interior supports Native American heritage and helps individuals and Tribes strive towards a bright future.

Partners for the long haul

A Native American man wearing traditional clothes and feathers dances inside a large room.
A performance at the Native American Heritage Month Opening Ceremony at the Department of the Interior building in 2016. Photo by Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the oldest bureau in the Department of the Interior. Established in 1824, the bureau currently provides services to approximately 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, and the 567 federally recognized Tribes in the United States. Federally recognized Tribes are sovereign nations exercising government-to-government relations with the United States. BIA employees across the country — most of whom are American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal members — work with Tribal governments in the administration of law enforcement and justice; agricultural and economic development; Tribal governance; Indian child welfare; and natural resources management programs to enhance the quality of life in Tribal communities. While the bureau’s role has changed significantly in the last three decades to place greater emphasis on Tribal self-governance and self-determination, Tribes generally still look to BIA for a broad spectrum of services.

The Bureau of Land Management works closely with Native American Tribes across the West. Where public lands are concerned, these relations usually take the form of legally required consultation in the decision-making process. BLM conducts government-to-government consultation with Native American communities to identify the cultural values, religious beliefs, traditional practices and legal rights that could be affected by actions on public lands. The vast public lands managed by the BLM feature significant evidence of the 10,000 plus years of human prehistory and history in the western United States and Alaska. Sites long inhabited by ancient people offer important insights into the ways in which human activities and the environment have been linked together through time, and how seemingly minor cultural practices can contribute to substantial environmental change. Discovering, studying, and understanding the evidence of past human influences provide us with important lessons about how we should be using our lands today.

For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided countless hours of technical assistance and millions of dollars in funding to Tribes across Indian Country, addressing mutual fish and wildlife conservation issues and needs. The agency also administers the Tribal Wildlife Grants Program — a competitive funding program that gives Tribal governments the opportunity to develop, build capacity, and implement programs or projects for the benefit of fish and wildlife and their habitat, including species of Native American culturally or traditional importance. The Service also operates the National Eagle Repository to provide a central location for the storage and distribution of bald and golden eagles found dead. Federally recognized Native Americans and Alaska Natives can use these feathers for religious, ceremonial and cultural purposes.

Education for the next generation
Boys in red and blue athletic clothes run across a dirt field.
Native American students at First Mesa Elementary School and Keams Canyon Elementary School run in a cross-country meet. Photo by Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Bureau of Indian Education’s mission is to provide quality educational opportunities, while maintaining the wide diversity of Indian Tribes and Alaska Native villages and their distinct cultures. The BIE approaches education by considering the whole person, taking into account the spiritual, mental, physical and cultural aspects of the individual within their family and Tribe or village. The BIE oversees one of two federal school systems that includes 183 elementary, secondary day and boarding schools on 64 reservations in 23 states and serves approximately 40,000 students. With grants from the Sovereignty in Indian Education Enhancement Program and the Johnson-O'Malley Program, the BIE strives for students to receive world-class educations. 

Preserving stories and artifacts

A small, round brick building stands on a flat plain with a starry sky above it.
Archaeological site at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Historic sites across the country help tell the stories of native peoples. From the arrival of the first people, through the emergence of distinct Tribal nations who faced the upheaval of European settlement and into the modern day, the history of Native Americans is as dramatic as it is complex. 

Famous cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and the Pueblos at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico are incredible examples of the Southwest’s earliest residents’ remarkable architectural and agricultural achievements. Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia preserves major earthworks of the Mississippian culture and evidence of more than 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. Alaska’s Sitka National Historical Park’s totem pole collection is a priceless cultural resource. Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado preserves 6,355 recorded sites including villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges. 

Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in New York features an interactive exhibit hall in the Visitor Center on the Native American culture and heritage of coastal Long Island. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington, is named in honor of the late Native American civil rights leader and citizen of the Nisqually Tribe. The Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial within the refuge commemorates the location of the signing of the treaty in 1854 between the federal government and members of the Medicine Creek Treaty Tribes. Places like Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site relate terrible stories of violence and injustice that are all too often a part of the nation’s history of its relations with the first Americans.

Water is Life

A canal filled with water curves through a desert landscape with a city and mountains on the distant horizon.
A canal flowing through Arizona. Photo by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Water is sacred to many Tribal nations and is vital to Tribal subsistence, cultural practices, health and welfare, agricultural production, and economic development. The Bureau of Reclamation supports Tribes in a variety of ways — including irrigation projects, dam safety, drought relief, and negotiating and implementing Indian water rights settlements. About 20 percent of Reclamation’s budget is used for work benefitting Tribes. The Native American Affairs Technical Assistance to Tribes Program establishes cooperative working relationships with Indian Tribes and Tribal organizations to ensure that Tribal communities have the opportunity to participate fully in Reclamation programs as they develop, manage, and protect their water and related resources.

Promoting Native American culture

An elaborately decorated pair of Native American shoes.
Ornately decorated moccasins. Photo by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

Traditional American Indian and Alaska Native art can combine elements of history, nature, spirituality and more. Counterfeit Indian art, which Interior combats through the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, undermines Indian economies, heritage and cultural preservation. The Board promotes Indian economic development through the expansion of the Indian arts and crafts market. It also works to ensure that products advertised as “Indian-made” are truly made by Indians.

The Board provides promotional opportunities, general business advice, information on intellectual property rights and Indian Arts and Crafts Act protections for Indian artists, businesses, and organizations, as well as consumers. Additionally, the Board operates three regional museums that showcase the talent and creativity of Indian artists, and it produces publications like the consumer protection brochures How To Buy Authentic Navajo (Diné) Weavings and Alaska Native Ivory.

Living off the Land

As the sunrises, a large group of people stand in a river with large nets trying to catch fish.
Dip net fishing in Alaska. Photo by Caz Van Devere, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Alaska's Indigenous people have relied on the traditional harvest of wild foods for thousands of years and have passed this way of life down through generations. The Federal Subsistence Management Program is a multi-agency effort to support a subsistence way of life by Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans on federal public lands and waters while maintaining healthy populations of fish and wildlife. Much of the food eaten by Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans is brought to the table by a family’s own hunting and fishing. Alaska Natives and rural Alaska residents harvest about 18,000 tons of wild foods each year. Fish makes up more than half of this harvest statewide — an average of nearly 300 pounds per person. Nowhere else in the United States is there such a heavy reliance on wild foods.

Energy from Indian Country

A grassy field is covered in several long lines of solar panels under a bright blue sky.
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians Solar Array. Photo courtesy of Department of Energy.

Indian Country holds millions of acres of energy-bearing territory. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for the administration and management of 55 million surface acres and 57 million acres of subsurface minerals estates held in trust by the federal government for federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Natives Tribes and individuals. The Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development assists Tribal governments with the environmentally responsible exploration, development and management of their energy and mineral resources to create sustainable economies for reservations, generate new jobs and economic self-sufficiency. Indian Country offers some excellent potential for renewable energy development and programs such as the BIA Office of Trust Services, Division of Energy and Mineral Development’s Tribal Energy Development Capacity Grant Program help light the way to greater Tribal self-determination.

Native American heritage and culture is an important part of our American story. Learn more about Interior’s Indian Affairs programs or visit a Native American historic site near you.

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