November Is Native American Heritage Month—Here Are 5 Things to Know

In 1914, Red Fox James rode from Montana to the White House to champion a celebration of America's indigenous peoples.
In 1914, Red Fox James rode from Montana to the White House to champion a celebration of America's indigenous peoples.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanksgiving and Veterans Day aren’t the only major holidays that happen in November. This month is also Native American Heritage Month—a time to remember that American history began long before settlers stepped foot on the continent, and to celebrate the many cultures and contributions of the country’s Indigenous peoples. Here are a few fascinating facts about how the commemoration came to be.

1. The Boy Scouts were among the first to celebrate a day for the “First Americans.”

Members of the Northern Wind Dancers from Pueblo, Colorado, at a Colorado Springs Native American Inter-Tribal Powwow.Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Arthur Caswell Parker, a member of the Seneca Nation and the great nephew of Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary during the Civil War, was one of the most prominent advocates of Native American rights throughout the early 20th century. (He also served as an ethnologist for the New York State Library, an archaeologist for the New York State Museum, and the director of New York’s Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences.) In addition to founding the Society of American Indians and the National Congress of American Indians, Parker lobbied the Boy Scouts of America to recognize the country’s Indigenous peoples with an annual holiday. His efforts proved successful; from 1912 to 1915, the Boy Scouts celebrated a day for the “First Americans.”

2. Red Fox James rode 4000 miles on horseback to garner support for the cause.

In March 1914, Red Fox James—believed to be a member of the Blackfeet Nation, though sometimes linked to the Crow Nation—embarked on a cross-country horseback ride from Montana to Washington, D.C. to ask that President Woodrow Wilson make October 12 a national holiday for Native Americans. Along the way, he collected signatures from governors, senators, and other officials to endorse the motion. Though James did meet with Wilson upon arrival in mid-December, there’s no evidence that Wilson ever issued a proclamation.

3. The push for a national holiday was related to civil rights.

Red Fox James in Washington, D.C.Harris & Ewing Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

James headed to the White House again in 1915, this time to petition the president to grant citizenship to Native Americans. That same year, the Congress of the American Indian Association decided to hold an annual “American Indian Day” on the second Saturday in May. The organization’s president, a member of the Arapaho Tribe named Sherman Coolidge, made an official declaration in September 1915—but it wasn’t just about a day of recognition. In his proclamation, Coolidge also advocated for Native American citizenship. In June 1924, Congress finally passed the Indian Citizenship Act, giving citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. Since voting rights rested with state governments, however, many Native American citizens still weren’t allowed to vote until the 1950s.

4. Gerald Ford was the first president to designate a “Native American Awareness Week.”

Following the efforts of Parker, James, Coolidge, and others, some states began honoring Native Americans with an annual day. New York was the first to do so, celebrating American Indian Day on the second Saturday in May 1916. Other states chose the fourth Friday in September. But the holiday wasn’t recognized by the White House until 1976, when Congress asked President Gerald Ford to honor the contributions of Indigenous peoples with a Native American Awareness Week from October 10 to October 16.

“In renewing the spirit and determined dedication of the past 200 years we should also join with our Native Americans in rebuilding an awareness, understanding, and appreciation for their historical role and future participation in our diverse American society,” Ford wrote in a proclamation.

5. George H.W. Bush was the president who extended the native American celebration to last a whole month.

Ronald Reagan kept up the tradition during his years in office, beginning with American Indian Day on May 13, 1983, and eventually landing on National American Indian Heritage Week in late November 1988. In 1990, Congress passed a resolution asking President George H.W. Bush to designate all of November as National American Indian Heritage Month, which he did. Since then, it’s become customary for the sitting president to issue a similar decree each fall, though the month is now usually referred to as National Native American Heritage Month or National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More


This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.


Instant Pot/Amazon

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7 Overlooked Thanksgiving Rituals, According to Sociologists

Even what the dog eats takes on a special significance on Thanksgiving.
Even what the dog eats takes on a special significance on Thanksgiving.

The carving of the turkey, the saying of the grace, the watching of the football. If a Martian anthropology student asked us to name some cultural rites of Thanksgiving, those would be the first few to come to mind. But students of anthropology know that a society is not always the best judge of its own customs.

The first major sociological study of Thanksgiving appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1991. The authors, Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, conducted in-depth interviews with people about their experiences of the holiday. They also had 100 students take detailed field notes on their Thanksgiving celebrations, supplemented by photographs. The data analysis revealed some common events in the field notes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews. Here are some common Thanksgiving rituals you might not realize qualify as such.

1. Giving Job Advice

Teenagers are given a ritual status shift to the adult part of the family, not only through the move from the kids' table to the grownup table, but also through the career counseling spontaneously offered by aunts, uncles, and anyone else with wisdom to share.

2. Forgetting an Ingredient

Oh no! Someone forgot to put the evaporated milk in the pumpkin pie! As the authors of the Thanksgiving study state, "since there is no written liturgy to insure exact replication each year, sometimes things are forgotten." In the ritual pattern, the forgetting is followed by lamentation, reassurance, acceptance, and the restoration of comfortable stability. It reinforces the themes of abundance (we've got plenty even if not everything works out) and family togetherness (we can overcome obstacles).

3. Telling Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past

One day she'll laugh about this.cookelma/iStock

Remember that time we fried a turkey and burned the house down? Another way to reinforce the theme of family togetherness is to retell the stories of things that have gone wrong at Thanksgiving and then laugh about them. This ritual can turn ugly, however, if not everyone has gotten to the point where they find the disaster stories funny.

4. The Reappropriation of Store-Bought Items

Transfer a store-bought pie crust to a bigger pan, filling out the extra space with pieces of another store-bought pie crust, and it's not quite so pre-manufactured anymore. Put pineapple chunks in the Jello, and it becomes something done "our way." The theme of the importance of the "homemade" emerges in the ritual of slightly changing the convenience foods to make them less convenient.

5. The Pet’s Meal

The pet is fed special food while everyone looks on and takes photos. This ritual enacts the theme of inclusion also involved in the inviting of those with "nowhere else to go."

6. Putting Away the Leftovers

These leftovers will make delicious soup.smartstock/iStock

In some cultures, feasts are followed by a ritual destruction of the surplus. At Thanksgiving, the Puritan value of frugality is embodied in the wrapping and packing up of all the leftovers. Even in households in which cooking from scratch is rare, the turkey carcass may be saved for soup. No such concern for waste is exhibited toward the packaging, which does not come from "a labor of love" and is simply thrown away.

7. Taking a Walk

After the eating and the groaning and the belly patting, someone will suggest a walk and a group will form to take a stroll. Sometimes the walkers will simply do laps around the house, but they often head out into the world to get some air. There is usually no destination involved, just a desire to move and feel the satisfied quietness of abundance—and to make some room for dessert.