Malia Lazu

Most heritage months have been created to bring visibility to communities unseen by mainstream America. For decades, even centuries, these communities have been underrepresented in the narrative known as the American story. Their huge contributions have been ignored to make way for a myth of American exceptionalism. That’s why we all need heritage months, to remind us that exceptionalism sits in the hearts and minds of all. These months give us an opportunity to learn more about who needed to be ignored, so that our mythos could be believed.  

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time set aside to recognize the contributions of our Indigenous communities. Of all the cultural observances, this one should be self-reflective for most Americans. We cannot deny that our shared history is one of violence, extraction and continued denial of treaties. According to a study in Science Magazine, “The researchers found that Indigenous people across the contiguous United States have lost 98.9 percent of their historical lands.”  

While other culture heritage months seem to have more obvious ways to celebrate – with familiar foods, culture, and music – we may be less clear about how to observe and honor Native American Heritage Month at home and in the workplace. That’s why it’s all the more important that we not ignore this month and, instead, commit to learning about Indigenous communities we are taught so little about.  

Here are some ways to think about Native American Heritage Month.  

Honor By Learning 

First, recognize who lived in your area before Columbus “discovered” America or “settlements” were established by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts or the Virginia colonists. In Massachusetts, several tribes were destroyed to make way for America, including the Massachusett, Pocumtuc, Nonotuck Mohawk, Nipmuc, Mohican, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribes. If you want to know more, find a calendar of local powWows; go, bring your kids and invite these tribes to speak to your business or other organizations.  

Learn about the current events of this community. This month in particular the Supreme Court is taking up a question on Indigenous rights and doesn’t seem to be inclined to move towards equity. The Haaland v. Brackeen case could overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act created in 1978 to prevent family separation in Indigenous communities. This case questions how we define and negotiate tribal sovereignty, including land and water rights.  

Become aware of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement., which is collecting data on the thousands of Indigenous women who were murdered or missing. Through their data collection, greater awareness of this issue has helped pass policies, including Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s (Laguna Pueblo) announcement of the formation of the Missing and Murdered Unit that will focus on analyzing and solving missing and murdered Indigenous peoples (MMIP) cases.  

Make Room for Healing 

Take a moment to reflect on the grave harm caused in the making of this country. Thanksgiving is an opportune time, because such reflection adds depth and texture to a day that otherwise can be all about feasting and football. Our gratitude becomes more genuine when we acknowledge past sins and commit to becoming more conscious. The fact is our country was built on stolen land and labor.  

This month it’s hard to not honor the contributions of Native Americans, without first recognizing that their land was the foundation of America. Yes, we can try to rationalize past events as “the times” – how everyone was conquering everybody else back then. But that does not open a way for healing as a country. We fight for land rights for others overseas, yet refuse to think of how to repair our own misdeeds. Taking a moment to just recognize this truth makes room for empathy.  

We can love this country and recognize our mistakes. This month may be the perfect time to put that into practice. Our country is in desperate need for us to love it enough to learn from our mistakes. If we want to come together and heal, let’s start by recognizing our original sins.  

Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.   

The Heritage Month We Cannot Overlook

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min