EDITORIAL: For Native American Heritage Month, Start with Awareness but Go Beyond

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Published November 10, 2021
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The Montclarion
Ian Long | The Montclarion

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time for appreciating, recognizing and paying tribute to the Indigenous people whose land this country was wrongfully founded on.

The history of the relationship between Native Americans and the European settlers who landed on their shores has been notoriously white-washed. Over time, many attempts have been made to erase not only their plight at the hands of the settlers but also their contributions to America’s progress.

Despite the inextricable relevance of Indigenous presences in America, many people know next to nothing about the history of the specific tribes who live in their region.

The Lenape people, also known as the Delaware Tribe, lived and still do live in the area that now encompasses New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Pennsylvania and New York. But when colonists began to arrive in the early 17th century, the Lenape were tricked out of their land by white settlers and forced to leave their homes, ending up displaced thousands of miles away in an allocated area of Kansas. Despite this, almost all of the eligible Delaware men voluntarily enlisted in the Union effort during the Civil War, even as white trespassers stole from them and unlawfully occupied their land.

This is obviously admirable, but Native Americans should not need to be heroes to be celebrated and acknowledged. It is enough that they were here first, as sovereign nations, and still they have not been given the attention or respect they deserve.

Montclair State University has a somewhat turbulent history when it comes to its relationship with Native American heritage and culture. During the 1930s, Montclair State’s athletic logo was changed from a simple red “M” to a stereotypical profile of a Native American chief, and the team name was changed in tandem to “Indians.” In August 1989, the logo and name were changed to the Red Hawks.

What’s more, Montclair State and the surrounding areas reside on land occupied by the Munsee Lenape tribe. Arrowheads were found on the grounds that became the campus during its expansion in 1917.

Earlier this year, Emily Johnson, an artist of the Yup’ik Nation, shared her experience with a Montclair State PEAK Performances official in a letter addressed to the National Endowment for the Arts. Johnson alleges a violent, defensive reaction from the official after she attempted to begin a dialogue on how PEAK Performances and Montclair State can begin the decolonization process.

Unfortunately, Montclair State’s response served only to defend the official, removing any responsibility from itself as an entity rather than fully acknowledging the humiliating experiences Johnson and others shared.

Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement, which cannot happen without a desire for widespread change. Knowledge is one of the most potent catalysts for such change, and there are many ways to begin educating yourself.

Last year, the Office for Social Justice and Diversity hosted an Indigenous Peoples Challenge, spanning five days. Participants were able to educate themselves about contemporary Indigenous issues, cultures and societies, as well as learn how to support Native American communities through activism and action. This year, the university is hosting a panel and open conversation about Montclair State’s Native Land Acknowledgement, acknowledging that Montclair State occupies the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape People, further committing the university to the urgent work of decolonization.

Montclair State is also offering some spring semester courses that encompass Indigenous studies, such as Native American history, Native North Americans, history of Mexico and also American Indian themes, a new English course featuring a variety of writers Indigenous to North and Central America.

There is far more work to be done beyond merely acknowledging Indigenous and First Nations people, as well as the myriad cultures that exist beyond most people’s monolithic ideas of Native Americans. Thanksgiving is almost upon us, a holiday which many children were and are wrongfully taught was born of a peaceful meeting between settlers and the Wampanoag people.

Self-education and awareness can come in many forms, from taking a class to getting involved with local Indigenous communities. It also means being aware of the harmful language you may hear or use that promotes false, detrimental ideas of American Indian people and cultures.

However you choose to celebrate, The Montclarion encourages students, faculty and staff to cultivate a deeper understanding of what it means to live on Indigenous land.

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