For the first time, federal legislation has set aside the day after Thanksgiving — for this year only — to honor the contributions American Indians have made to the United States.
Frank Suniga, a descendent of Mescalero Apache Indians who lives in Oregon, said he and others began pushing in 2001 for a national day that recognizes tribal heritage.
Suniga, 79, proposed his idea to a cultural committee that is part of the Portland-based Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. The organization took on the cause of a commemorative day, as did the National Congress of American Indians and other groups.
Congress passed legislation this year designating the day as Native American Heritage Day, and President George W. Bush signed it last month.
The measure notes that more Americans Indians than any other group, per capita, serve in the U.S. military. It also cites tribes’ artistic, musical and agricultural contributions.
“The Indians kept the Pilgrims alive with turkeys and wild game,” Suniga said. “That’s the reason it was attached to the Thanksgiving weekend.”
After the Thanksgiving weekend, Suniga said, he and other advocates plan to lobby to place the Native American Heritage Day on the nation’s calendar annually.
It isn’t certain, however, that all tribes would agree that the fourth Friday in November is the best day to recognize their contributions and traditions.
“Thanksgiving is controversial to some people,” said Joe Garcia, director of the National Congress of American Indians.
The holiday marks a 1621 feast in which English settlers and Wampanoag Indians celebrated and gave thanks in Massachusetts for their harvest, but it was followed by centuries of battles and tense relations between the United States and tribes.
Unfortunately, tribes have had virtually no time to plan events to commemorate Native American Heritage Day because the legislation creating it was signed only last month, noted Cleora Hill-Scott, executive director of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
“What’s difficult is this day is going to come and go without much being done.” she said.