By Belle Vang, COSS Communications Student Assistant

There are significant reasons National Native American Heritage Day (NNAHD) has always been celebrated the day after Thanksgiving.  Dr. Leece Lee-Oliver, American Indian Studies (AIS) director and Women’s Studies assistant professor, walks us through the relevance of this day by sharing her personal and professional knowledge.

Dr. Lee-Oliver hosting Native American Women’s Summit in Spring 2019

Thanksgiving, like most U.S. holidays, presents families and friends time to come together, commune, and rejuvenate. As a holiday that is typically associated with Native Americans, the day and month of November offer opportunities to grow better national awareness of Native American societies prior to colonization and U.S. nation-formation and tribal communities and systems today.

“There were teaching systems and medical systems and political systems that existed prior to Western expansion,” Dr. Lee-Oliver emphasizes.

Adding that “Great Law,” the Haudenosaunee governmental system still in place today, and their conceptualizations of human autonomy and egalitarianism are embedded in the U.S. Constitution and our fundamental structures that created our democracy. Native American history “is our shared history” in the United States.

“In our households, Native American families often teach the complex histories of our peoples. In my own home, I learned lessons about our Native American families and our immigrant family members and stories reflected the challenges of western expansion,” Dr. Lee-Oliver shares.  “I was also struck at an early age by what seemed to be lessons of humility and generosity–those that reflected Native Americans who shared agricultural knowledge and techniques and our immigrant families’ willingness to learn and accept these gifts of knowledge.”

Native American tied sage

She notes that although national holidays like Thanksgiving encourage friends and families to come together and are fun celebrations, it’s important to acknowledge the flaws of its national narrative.  The story many students have learned in school focuses on good pilgrims giving Native Americans an evening of sustainable celebration through their food, time, and sharing–a reflection of the coming together of settlers and Native Americans.

Native American leaders

Dr. Lee-Oliver relays the differences between stories, providing the example of Jamestown.  Native Americans helped English settlers in Jamestown survive through three waves of settlement until the settlers stopped suffering from things like starvation and pneumonia.

“It’s very weird to get together on a holiday that doesn’t feel real and where you know a different story,” Dr. Lee-Oliver comments.  “In fact, there are tribes that tell a story of this time of year being set up for Native American massacres because the desire was to acquire that land, so the real story of Thanksgiving is a bit more complicated for tribal people.”

Stories like these are incredibly important to decolonize and unveil the truth of cultures, and that’s what Dr. Lee-Oliver aims to share through the AIS program.  As an interdisciplinary study, AIS encourages students to become more advanced with their research and knowledge by understanding the issues of tribal sovereignty, health and wellness, music, and art in the Native American culture then integrating it.

“The core of American Indian Studies is what you learn about its history, law, colonialism, social justice movements, education, and health,” Dr. Lee-Oliver highlights.  “Then you can connect that to any other field.”

Graduating AIS class in Fall 2019

Dr. Lee-Oliver emphasizes the importance of collaborative programs and honors national heritage days like NNAHD that encourage peace, longevity, and stability.  The cross-collaboration of different ethnic groups creates a space of safety and sustainability and recognizes the cultural narratives as a key component of heritage.

“If you have enough water in the root system of plants, they can sustain themselves through drought and become more fire-resistant,” Dr. Lee-Oliver metaphorically explains.  “The idea that all of our different cultures can help inform really sustainable ways to live and live sustainably with one another just creates a better way of life for ourselves.”

If you are interested in learning more about Native American heritage and culture, the following AIS classes offered in Spring 2020 are as listed:
AIS 50: Contemporary Life of the American Indian: Current problems of American Indians and Arctic Natives resulting from culture conflict, acculturation, minority status, and governmental policy.  G.E. Breadth D3.
AIS 101: American Indian Law: Concepts of laws on Indian reservations, termination, litigation, and complaints, strengthening tribal governments. Law related to Indian land and resources.