This article was written by Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota), Board Vice Chair at Johnson Scholarship Foundation.
It’s that time of year again when we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Officially designated in 1990 by President H.W. Bush, the acknowledgments and activities today have expanded beyond the grade school stereotype that “Indians and Pilgrims celebrate Thanksgiving.”
Much has changed over the 40+ years I’ve worked for and with Native people, communities and organizations. Now stories about Native Americans, I’m happy to say, are told all year long and mostly by Native people themselves—which has not always been the case. This November, the stories are more numerous, mainstream and educational than simply the “First Thanksgiving.”
Native people have made inroads into areas where we have not been historically. This includes the three branches of the federal government—legislative, executive and judicial. There are five members of the House of Representatives who are Native. There had been six, but Deb Haaland, formerly a representative from New Mexico, was appointed Secretary of the Interior in 2020. She is one of 52 Native people appointed by the Biden Administration in top leadership positions at various departments, boards, commissions, and in the White House. There are now five sitting federal judges who are Native, two of whom were more recently appointed by President Biden. And on November 15, 2023 the Senate confirmed a Native person to be a U.S. ambassador.
Native people now have more of a presence in pop culture and entertainment. There are popular television series such as “Reservation Dogs,” “Dark Winds” and “Rutherford Falls”—to name a few—that have Native actors, directors and producers. While not told from the Native perspective, the recently released Scorsese-directed movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” showcases an unknown part of the history of the Osage people, featuring powerful Native actors. Season 2 of the four-part PBS series, “Native America,” premiered in October. It is directed and produced by Native people with active input from the community and “reveals the beauty and power of today’s Indigenous world.”
There are amazing award-winning authors such as Pulitzer Prize winner, Louise Erdrich, or author Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose book “Braiding Sweetgrass” recently spent two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t want to go down this road too far, as I’ll never be able to note the countless Native people who are leading in new areas and benefitting their communities with positive stories—and role models.
We should also acknowledge the great strides that many tribal governments have made over the past few decades, building their economies, preserving their cultures and creating a better quality of life for their citizens. They are doing this by exercising their sovereignty in small and large ways. Tribal enterprises and Native-owned businesses have grown dramatically over the past decade providing employment, income and the opportunity to build wealth. The number of Native-led nonprofit organizations is growing, meeting needs and making inroads in development finance, arts and culture, philanthropy, activism, health delivery and education, to name a few.
Native people have taken on the challenge of changing the narrative about their people, breaking down the stereotypes. We are not a remnant of the past, but very much alive and thriving today. Out this month is a book to share our stories. “Invisible No More: Voices from Native America” is a joint venture between First Nations Development Institute and Nonprofit Quarterly. I’m honored to be one of more than two dozen Native nonprofit leaders who contributed to this multi-year effort to elevate our stories and our voices.
“Invisible No More” includes lessons for philanthropy about the importance of including, engaging and supporting Indigenous peoples’ efforts. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation has been a leader in supporting education for Indigenous people for over 30 years, providing more than $30 million in scholarships and other grants to institutions across the United States and Canada. JSF chair and former CEO, Malcolm Macleod, recently released a new book, “The Practice of Philanthropy: A Guide for Foundation Boards and Staff,” which also shares lessons learned and strategies from his more than 30 years in philanthropy.
I wish every month of the year celebrated the Indigenous people of this land. The books, movies and Native people represented in more areas and actions, such as land acknowledgments, raise awareness that we are still here—not a historical artifact.
This important work continues.
For more information about the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s work in funding programs for Indigenous Peoples, click here.