Observation of Native American Heritage Month

Photo Courtesy of Jake Bacon

“I want us to acknowledge that SUNY New Paltz stands on the land that is the traditional territory of the people of the Stockbridge-Munsee, Espopus and Lenape tribes, who inhabited and cared for this land before European colonizers named this region New Paltz,” said President Darrell P. Wheeler during his 2023 Commencement speech. “The Stockbridge-Munsee, Esopus and Lenape are not relics of our past, but rather exist in the modern understanding of our institution. We humbly ask that our daily efforts to educate, learn and to care for this land honor them.”

We observe Native American Heritage Month in November, which began as a week-long celebration in 1986 under President Reagan, to recognize the invaluable contributions of Native peoples that have shaped our country, honor the hundreds of Tribal Nations who continue to exercise their sovereignty, pay tribute to their rich ancestry and histories and acknowledge the role we as colonizers had in their suffering.

In the thousand years or so before European contact, the Native peoples in the New Paltz area lived in small migratory clans or villages of 10 to 100 family members. “They were agriculturalists,” said Joseph Diamond, professor of archeology at SUNY New Paltz. These Native peoples “grew corn, beans, and various species of squash, and gathered plant foods such as hickory, nuts, butternuts, walnuts, acorns, chestnuts and various berries to supplement their diet.”

They carved containers and utensils, fashioned hunting, trapping and fishing gear, baskets and pottery and made clothing, which they decorated with porcupine quills, shells and other items from nature. Storytellers passed on how life came to be, how the earth was created, how the people learned to sing and what the stars could teach them. This civilization learned how to live in peace, with respectfulness and shared responsibility.

With European conquest, disease wiped out hundreds of thousands; sometimes, entire villages perished at once. Genocide, the systematic exploitation, removal and destruction of the Native population, took out the rest. 

Their skin was dark, their languages were foreign and their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white men’s comprehension. So, Indigenous peoples were painted as pagan savages who must be killed in the name of civilization and Christianity. The result? A civilization dating back to the time of the mastodons was nearly eradicated and its few survivors were forced to live thousands of miles from their ancestral homes.

Native American Heritage Month is essential for recognizing this 400 year past of disease, degradation and displacement of Native people and their continued maltreatment in our modern world.

“There is an argument to be made that acknowledging ancestral lands does good regardless of institutional priorities or intentions of the speaker — in so far as it raises awareness by naming history in language,” said Benjamin Junge, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology. “The alternative viewpoint is that these acknowledgments may actually do harm since they leave listeners with the impression that somehow the problem is being addressed when it hasn’t been.”

Land acknowledgement statements are empty proclamations if direct action is not taken to address the violence committed against Indigenous people. “New Paltz doesn’t support its Native American Studies program or provide preferential admission or a free/discounted education to students of Native heritage,” Junge said. There is more to be done to atone for the brutality of colonizers on the Native people and their sacred land, which we now occupy.

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