Commemorating the “founders” of America at the same time as Native Heritage Month adds insult to a long history of injury against Indigenous people.
Since 1990, the federal government has recognized November, albeit too quietly, as National Native American Heritage Month. Like most commemorative months dedicated to honoring the culture and history of an oppressed people in the U.S., Native American Heritage Month has always been a grossly insufficient gesture. So it was only added insult to an unbroken history of injury visited upon Indigenous people when President Donald Trump declared that November would also be “National American History and Founders Month.”
The White House issued a presidential proclamation at the end of last week to little fanfare. “For more than two centuries, the American experiment in self-government has been the antithesis to tyranny,” said the statement, a paean to nationalist myths. Trump did issue a presidential proclamation recognizing Native American Heritage Month on the same day, as he had in 2017 and 2018. Yet while the proclamation for Founders Month lives on WhiteHouse.gov, the statement recognizing Indigenous history is nowhere to be found on the site.
People might point to the statement on Native American Heritage Month, but don’t be fooled: The addition of a National American History and Founders Month — especially during the same timeframe — is cruel Indigenous erasure, pure and simple.
“Let me clarify,” wrote journalist and Oglala tribe member Simon Moya-Smith on Twitter, “Trump subverts and undermines #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth by instead celebrating ‘The Founders’ — white men who in the Declaration of Independence explicitly referred to Natives as ‘merciless Indian savages.’” Moya-Smith’s invocation of this often overlooked racist piece of the Declaration of Independence raises a grim irony in Trump’s new proclamation: It urges the “indispensable” study of “our nation’s founding documents” in which this racist description of Indigenous people exists.
The proclamation is hardly Trump and his administration’s first violence enacted against Native people. Just days into his presidency, Trump approved the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline, which Indigenous Water Protectors from around the country had been protesting against for years. The pipeline runs through sacred lands and threatens to contaminate the main water source of the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as 17 million people who live downstream from it.
And Trump had mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren — guilty of Native erasure herself — in a bigoted fashion by calling her “Pocahontas” and made a horrific reference to Wounded Knee, where over 250 Lakota were massacred and buried in a mass grave in 1890, in the process.
In the 1990s, Trump made moves to protect his own gambling empire from Native-owned casinos by secretly paying more than $1 million for ads that portrayed members of a tribe in upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals.
The National American History and Founders Month proclamation makes no mention of Native people, yet it states that “we must develop a deeper understanding of our American story.” Meanwhile, the buried Native American Heritage Month proclamation is in itself an offensive document. It praises the fact that Native Americans and Native Alaskans are more likely to serve in the armed forces than any other ethnic group in the U.S., yet unsurprisingly glosses over the way that these service members are treated in return. Native veterans are among the poorest in the country, the least insured, and with the least access to the Department of Veterans Affairs services.
The Native Heritage statement also dedicates an entire paragraph to how the government has made efforts to address the opioid crisis, seizing “more than 3,200 pounds of illegal narcotics with an estimated value of approximately $9 million.”
The opioid crisis has indeed hit Native communities hard, leading to a spike in overdose deaths and hundreds of children being taken away from their parents and tribal communities by the state — reenacting a historic trauma of Native child removal in the U.S. In a White House statement ostensibly aimed at honoring Indigenous culture and history, the focus on the opioid epidemic — and to celebrate the state’s response — is another insult.
“Native people are scientists, tribal leaders, educators, journalists, astronauts, activists, artists, actors, models, make-up artists and so much more,” the Indigenous-focused news site Indian Country Today noted in a tweet about Native American Heritage Month.
It is crucial to add to this list that Indigenous people are at the forefront of the struggle against resource extraction and environmental decimation. This is at least one contribution by Native people that the Trump administration has recognized — and responded with militarized policing, brutality, and harsh legal penalties. It’s an apt continuation of the legacy of American history and the founders. This history is not worthy of any kind of celebration at all.