Native American Heritage Month

On Dec. 14, 1915, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, presented at the White House endorsements from 24 state governments for a day to honor Indians. But the federal government didn’t take action until 1983, when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed May 13 as American Indian Day. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. It is now called National Native American Heritage Month.

Who is an Indian?

No single federal or tribal criterion establishes a person’s identity as an Indian. Tribal membership is determined by the enrollment criteria of the tribe from which Indian blood may be derived, and this varies with each tribe. Generally, if linkage to an identified tribal member is far removed, one would not qualify for membership.

To be eligible for Bureau of Indian Affairs services, an Indian must (1) be a member of a tribe recognized by the federal government, (2) be of one-half or more Indian blood of tribes indigenous to the United States; or (3) must, for some purposes, be of one-fourth or more Indian ancestry. By legislative and administrative decision, the Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians of Alaska are eligible for BIA services. Most of the BIA’s services and programs, however, are limited to Indians living on or near Indian reservations.

The Bureau of the Census counts anyone an Indian who declares himself or herself to be an Indian. As of 2010, the Census Bureau estimates there were more than 2.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the United States.

There are more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including 223 village groups in Alaska. “Federally recognized” means these tribes and groups have a special, legal relationship with the U.S. government. This relationship is referred to as a government-to-government relationship.

American Indian vs. Native American  (from

Over the years, the people whom these words are meant to represent have made their preference clear: the majority of American Indians/Native Americans believe it is acceptable to use either term, or both. Many have also suggested leaving such general terms behind in favor of specific tribal designations. As the publisher and editor of The Navajo Times, the largest Native American–owned weekly newspaper, puts it, “I . . . would rather be known as, ‘Tom Arviso Jr., a member of the Navajo tribe,’ instead of ‘Arviso, a Native American or American Indian.’ This gives an authentic description of my heritage, rather than lumping me into a whole race of people.”

As we learned in grade school, Indian was the name Columbus mistakenly applied to the people he encountered when he arrived in what he believed was the “Indies,” the medieval name for Asia. Introduced in the 1960s, the term Native American offered a way of eradicating confusion between the indigenous people of the Americas and the indigenous people of India. The term American Indian also served that purpose, but raised other problems: the use of Indian in any form had begun to be seen by some as pejorative.

Contributions to the English Language

Today, thousands of place names across North America have Indian origins—as do hundreds of everyday English words.

Many of these words are nouns from the Algonquian languages that were once widespread along the Atlantic coast. English colonists, encountering unfamiliar plants and animals—among them moose, opossum, and skunk—borrowed Indian terms to name them. Pronunciations generally changed, and sometimes the newcomers shortened words they found difficult; for instance, “pocohiquara” became “hickory.” Here are some U.S. English Words with Indian Origins:

  • anorak from the Greenlandic Inuit “annoraq”
  • bayou from the Choctaw “bayuk”
  • chipmunk from the Ojibwa “ajidamoon,” red squirrel
  • hickory from the Virginia Algonquian “pocohiquara”
  • hominy from the Virginia Algonquian “uskatahomen”
  • igloo from the Canadian Inuit “iglu,” house
  • kayak from the Alaskan Yupik “qayaq”
  • moccasin from the Virginia Algonquian
  • moose from the Eastern Abenaki “mos”
  • pecan from the Illinois “pakani”
  • quahog from the Narragansett “poquauhock”
  • squash from the Narragansett “askutasquash”
  • succotash from the Narragansett “msickquatash,” boiled corn
  • toboggan from the Micmac “topaghan”
  • tomahawk from the Virginia Algonquian “tamahaac”
  • totem from the Ojibwa “nindoodem,” my totem
  • wampum from the Massachusett “wampumpeag”

A Major Contribution of Native American Language

In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers; the rest served in other capacities.

The Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all Marine divisions, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language—a code that the Japanese never broke.

The idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Johnston, reared on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military’s search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also knew that Native American languages—notably Choctaw—had been used in World War I to encode messages.

Johnston believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an undecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest.