{Celebrating Native American Heritage Day} Client: San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

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Today, as we celebrate Native American Heritage Day, we look back at the inception of Native American Heritage Day, nationally designated as the day after Thanksgiving, and supporters right here in the Inland Empire who were responsible for making this day a reality.

Locally, for decades many have advocated spotlighting contributions by Native people as well as including accurate accounts of California Native history in our schools and classrooms.

You may remember when Joe Baca was elected to the California State Assembly in 1992. During his time in the State Assembly, Baca worked tirelessly in support of low-income families, diversity practices, education, Tribal sovereignty and much more. One of his notable legislative achievements before being elected to Congress in 1999 was helping to establish the fourth Friday in September as California Native American Day, an official state holiday.

The effort to establish a day of Native recognition in California was driven in part by the disconnect between the rich culture and traditions of California’s Native peoples — the Inland Empire’s first people — and the way Native American history was being taught in schools. A pan Indian view of buffaloes, teepees, smoke signals and savage warriors seemed to be the focus of elementary school education on tribal culture while the true stories, traditions and customs of California’s tribes were being neglected and lost.

For more than a decade, the San Manuel Tribal Unity and Cultural Awareness Program, in partnership with the San Bernardino City Unified School District, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, California State University San Bernardino, and the California Superintendent of Public Instruction, have organized wonderfully successful Native American Day events to educate teachers and students from all over San Bernardino and Riverside Counties about California’s indigenous Native American Tribes.

This past September, California Native American Day celebrated its 13th year, with nearly 40,000 teachers and students having benefited to date. During this year’s fun-filled weeklong event, hundreds of students and teachers learned about the culture and heritage of the California Indian nations from tribal elders, leaders and academics, including Indian storytelling, Bird Song, traditional food, basket-weaving and pottery, and more.

With the goal of taking the success of California’s Native American Heritage Day to the national level, San Manuel continued to work side by side with Rep. Baca over the years.

In 2008, after years of persistent work, Baca sponsored legislation that passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President George W. Bush, establishing the day after Thanksgiving as National Native American Heritage Day.

On Nov. 1, President Barack Obama declared Nov. 25, 2011, as Native American Heritage Day, encouraging all Americans and educators to commemorate with appropriate activities, programs and celebrations.

It is only fitting to highlight some major contributions from Ira Hayes, Pima Indian, who helped raise the U.S. Flag at Iwo Jima, to the renowned Native code talkers, whose tribal languages proved to be unbreakable codes with which messages were sent during WWII, to a present California Native American, Kyle Lohse, a starting pitcher on the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, just to name a few.

Let’s not forget Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American and Korean War veteran who was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming one of the few Native Americans to achieve high public office.

Learning about Indian culture and our nation’s beginnings deepens and enriches the broad sweep of our state and national history, creating greater appreciation for the First Americans and for the greatest nation on Earth, which we all share today.

As we look forward to celebrating National Native American Heritage Day today, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and other California tribes are grateful for the devotion of our elders — past and present — who have kept the dream of hope and prosperity alive despite the trials and tribulations experienced by our people.

We encourage our fellow citizens to embrace America’s noble Indian nations and heritage.

James Ramos, M.B.A., is the Chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians. He is also chairman of the California Native American Heritage Commission, member of the California State Board of Education and trustee of the San Bernardino Community College Board of Trustees.

Read more from this educational editorial series HERE and HERE.

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