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National heritage day honors Native Americans

PORTLAND, Ore. – It may be a small step, but a day meant to honor American Indians’ contributions acknowledges a history and culture that many say is often overlooked.

For the first time, federal legislation has set aside the day after Thanksgiving – for this year only – to honor American Indians in the United States. Few celebrations are planned this year, but backers say they hope to make the commemoration annual.

Frank Suniga of Salem, Ore., a descendent of Mescalero Apache Indians, said he and others began pushing in 2001 for a national day that recognizes his and other tribes’ heritage.

“I thought, ‘Why aren’t we on the calendar – us Indians?’ ” Suniga said.

Suniga, 79, proposed his idea to a cultural committee that is part of the Portland-based Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. The organization took on the cause of a commemorative day, as did the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., and other groups.

Congress passed legislation this year designating the day as Native American Heritage Day, and President George W. Bush signed it last month.

The measure notes that more Americans Indians than any other group, per capita, serve in the U.S. military. It also cites tribes’ artistic, musical and agricultural contributions.

“The Indians kept the Pilgrims alive with turkeys and wild game,” Suniga said. “That’s the reason it was attached to the Thanksgiving weekend.”

After the Thanksgiving weekend, Suniga said, he and other advocates plan to lobby to place the Native American Heritage Day on the nation’s calendar annually.

Both the Portland and D.C.-based organizations said they would support an annual commemorative day. It isn’t certain, however, that all tribes would agree the fourth Friday in November is the best day to recognize their contributions and traditions.

“The question is should it be the day after Thanksgiving?” said Joe Garcia, director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Thanksgiving is controversial to some people.”

The holiday, which has its roots in Massachusetts, marks a 1621 feast in which English settlers and Wampanoag Indians celebrated and gave thanks for their harvest, but it was followed by centuries of battles and tense relations between the United States and tribes.

Recognizing American Indians the day after Thanksgiving, the Native American Heritage Day Act of 2008 says, emphasizes the nation’s relationship with tribes now.

“I think the recognition is important,” Garcia said, “and the most important thing it does is give a little more perspective from the American Indian side.”

Cleora Hill-Scott, executive director of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, agrees. But she also said that because the Native American Heritage Day law was passed last month, few – if any – tribes in the region have planned events to commemorate the day.

“What’s difficult is this day is going to come and go without much being done.” Hill-Scott said. “It’s a baby step in the right direction.”

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