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Native American Heritage Month is an important time to honor Native communities and also an opportunity to center Native community experiences.

Native American Heritage Month is an important time to honor Native communities and also an opportunity to center Native community experiences.

Colorado has made some important historical declarations in 2021:

  • The mascot bill/Senate Bill 116: Prohibits the use of Native American imagery or likeness in school mascot use. Speaking to the importance of the learning environment of Native and Indigenous-identifying students and their families being honored.
  • Senate bill 29: Offers in-state tuition to enrolled members of Tribes with “historic ties” to Colorado. Enriching the acknowledgment of over 70 Tribal Nations who had once called this State, their home before those Tribal Nations were forcefully removed away from their land, culture by the white colonists.
  • House Bill 1151: Indian Tribes certify foster homes. The current process only required the assessment/certification of a county social worker to assign foster homes, this bill gives federally recognized Tribes the certification by statute.
  • Rescinded 1864 Evans Proclamation: In 1864 Gov. John Evans issued a proclamation that, in essence, declared open season, that “Indians be hunted” much like hunters would collect game. A similar proclamation coupled with this one in 1864 called for the “friendly Indians” to make their way to US military forts as a sign that they were not the “hostiles” that should be hunted. Both of these proclamations led to what we now know as the Sand Creek Massacre.
  • The growing number of cities throughout Colorado that enacted proclamations to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day (the former Columbus Day, October) and the proclamation of MMIW/P (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women/People’s Day, May 5th)

It is the 43rd year of the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Encouraging all social workers and other providers to continue to honor this federal mandate when Native children come into care within various States is essential. To ensure all proper services are considered when Native children come into care and make every possible effort that children are not subjected to further neglect and abuse when placed in foster homes. The ICWA provides an effort to keep Native children in Native homes when placed through social services or children and family services.

We have also learned more about the traumas Native children and families endured in the Indian Boarding schools with the current number of buried children numbering well over 4,000 spirits. Indian Boarding schools existed here in Colorado as well, most notable was the school in Grand Junction. In these schools, the goal was to “kill the Indian, save the man” and do so using education as the face of the efforts to erase all that it meant to be Native/Indigenous in childhood in the hopes that we would grow out of the problematic traits.

We are in a constant state of healing and remembrance in our communities, the awareness and respect from our provider agencies and allies are of the most critical importance in this time. Humans are not fully accessing their healing opportunities if we are asked to forget the past and contextualize history, all of which are deeply connected to our present. Often times we, as Native/Indigenous people, are ignored, mistreated and wiped away for all of these complexities and connections to a shameful history that founds the world we live in together today.

To understand the Native, Indian, Indigenous experiences and community; you have to acknowledge and study the truth in our history. Every aspect can be explained by those atrocities. The mistrust in systems, government, care and even within our own communities can be tethered to every interaction that we have with non-Indian processes and people. Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike must unlearn the teachings of generations of unhealthy dynamics, coping, mourning and survivorship.

Honoring Native American Heritage can be an action within all of our work, it is necessary in the work of gender-based violence as well. When we look for portrayals of Native American people and culture, we can do so more thoughtfully and honorably. Seeking out Native American artists through music, crafts, depictions in movies and media; making sure that those portrayals have been by or in partnership with Native American peoples.  Our bodies have been fetishized and commodified to market since first interactions with colonization and continues to present day in the forms that we now know as trafficking.

When Native/Indigenous voices and leaders are working to bring change in policies and legislature, we need support and belief in our pursuit by our allies and by provider agencies. The latest push back we’ve received in our work to draft Colorado’s first ever MMIR (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives) bill is that our systems responders “do not see the fairness in giving one race more importance over others”. Which is another point of discussion and correction that Indigenous/Native communities are not a racial group, it is a culturally specific people that has been underserved and largely ignored. Our invisibility to our systems has become highly problematic in our work to get this bill forward, we are still not seen, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous/Native people still lacks belief.

Sexual violence has also been the weapon of war on Native/Indigenous bodies. It is critically important that those of us who work in the field of gender-based violence acknowledge that colonization also included in its roots, sexual assault and sexual abuse. The shame of this victimization at the hands of a machine intended to erase all that we once were initiated the drift from our culture, language, land and ceremonial practices and celebrations. The learned violence and abuses that children endured in the Indian boarding schools sealed the fate that even in our homes, this act of war would still rage on within our families.

Should you find yourself wondering, what can I do in my ally work or in my position to play a part in dismantling these impacts, think about these points. Seek out information, when you scratch the surface you can see that we are here and we are impacting change. Go further than the surface, do something with that information. Consider your agency leadership and agency policies around systemic inequities that do not consider these points of history and how they connect to present day obstacles. When we consider what it means to heal a client, do we make room for their own ways to seek that healing and all the potential reasons for disconnection to those ways? We must reflect on words like empowerment and healing, if we do not have this baseline understanding of Native/Indigenous communities, are we truly empowering or healing?

In this month of awareness and in every day we must remember this history, we must honor that trauma may be historical and also, impacts our present. The trajectory of our Native/Indigenous future and how we get there is found within our Native/Indigenous communities and in our relentless journey home.

Gina Lopez, Ute Mountain Ute

CCASA, Rural & Indigenous Communities Specialist