Native American Heritage Month

What comes to mind when thinking of November? Thanksgiving? Veteran’s Day? Most do not know that Native American Heritage Month thanksgivingtakes place in November as well. During this time, people celebrate the diverse Native American cultures and raise awareness about their history.

Many schools in the United States whitewash the story of Thanksgiving and do not mention the Native Americans. In reality, the Native Americans taught the Europeans how to survive in the winter. Squanto, one of these Americans, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Europe. He belonged to the Patuxet tribe in the Wampanoag Confederacy. When he finally returned to America, he found out his tribe died of smallpox. Other Native Americans who helped the Europeans also lost their tribes from foreign diseases.

Prior to Squanto, other peoples in Central and South America died from sickness, battle or being worked to death from the Spanish conquest and colonization. Christopher Columbus and other Spaniards caused genocides in the Caribbean. My anthropology professor in Cuba said that almost no indigenous culture exists there because of this.

The European men colonizing America used rape as a colonizing tool. It also functioned to mold the Native American societies into patriarchal ones. European men would also disfigure a native woman’s genitals.  Chelsea Whalley describes in her article the torture Native American women faced. I think the colonizers were awful people and not acting in their “Christian” nature, and I shudder to think that some of my ancestors endured this. The women suffered from this persecution and maltreatment, and through “la teta asustada” passed their suffering on to their children.

Even though the Native Americans have suffered discrimination and christianity -under attack-torture, they continue to remain strong. Two strong Native American women I admire are Maria Tallchief and Mary Antisarlook.

Maria Tallchief was born in 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma on an Osage Reservation. She played piano and attended ballet classes as a child. Her mother would allow her to watch Osage dancers perform in secret. Tallchief studied ballet in Los Angeles with Ernest Belcher and Bronisalva Nijinska. She danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, because the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet and became the first American woman to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet.

Tallchief married the famous choreographer George Balanchine, but the two divorced after five years. She is famous for her roles in Firebird, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. She retired from dancing in 1965, and started and served as Artistic Director for the Chicago City Ballet. Tallchief’s autobiography was published in 1997.

She paved the way for Native Americans in the United States to study

Maria Tallchief
Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes in The Nutcracker

ballet. The Osage people gave her the name Wa-Xthe-Thomba which means “Woman of Two Worlds.” Tallchief also has a statue along with four other Native American ballerinas as part of the “Five Moons” in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The other woman, Mary Antisarlook was born in 1870 in St. Michael, Alaska. Her father was Russian, and her mother Iñupiaq. Antisarlook’s nickname was Sinrock Mary, Queen of Reindeer. She could speak her native language, Russian and English and worked as an interpreter for the US Revenue Cutter Bear. The ship transported reindeer from Siberia to Alaska. Antisarlook’s husband received some reindeer, and the two managed a herd at Sinrock, which is where her nickname originated. The couple adopted children and delivered food to ship crew members when eight ships were trapped near Point Barrow in ice.

When her husband died of measles in 1900, Antisarlook had to fight to keep her half of their reindeer herd. Since she was a woman and a Native American, she was not allowed to own land. She was able to keep her herd and became of one the richest women in Alaska.

Maria Antisarlook
Mary Antisarlook

Antisarlook sold meat to the army stations and businesses, and made a lot of money during the gold rush. She trained her children and Iñupiaq men the art of reindeer herding. Antisarlook carefully watched her herd when gold miners came to Nome. These miners made illegal decisions at times and it affected her people. She died in 1948. Alaska remembers Antisarlook as a hero and as a firm, friendly person.

Tallchief and Antisarlook are two feminists who embraced their heritages and did not allow authority to tell them what to do. I appreciate their bold spirits and how they stayed true to themselves.

When we talk about feminism, we need to include all women, no matter what race, religion or sexual orientation they are. At times, mainstream feminism pushes out groups like Native American women. That is not acceptable. Our society needs to condemn the “S” word, stop stereotyping Native Americans like in Peter Pan, not whitewash US history in schools and cease to portray Native Americans as mascots. These are especially important for Moscow because it is located by the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce Reservations.

I encourage everyone to learn about the real history of the United States and the American continent this November and celebrate the various Native American cultures.

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