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National Native American Heritage Day and Month celebrates respect, culture, education

  • Published
  • By Jim Varhegyi, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Public Affairs
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFLCMC) --- In 2009, then President Barack Obama signed “The Native American Heritage Day Resolution” designating the Friday after Thanksgiving as “Native American Heritage Day.” The resolution had unanimous support in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

When signing H.J. Res. 40 into law, President Obama stated, “I encourage every American to join me in observing Native American Heritage Day... It is also important for all of us to understand the rich culture, tradition, and history of Native Americans and their status today, and to appreciate the contributions that First Americans have made and will continue to make to our Nation.”

President George H.W. Bush had previously signed a joint resolution in 1990, designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. Since that time presidents have issued annual proclamations celebrating the heritage and culture of Native Americans.

This year’s theme, “Celebrating Respect, Culture, and Education,” focuses on the celebration of respecting our fellow man and nature and embracing and educating ourselves on cultures different than our own.

Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have a unique relationship with the federal government because of historic conflict and subsequent treaties. To date, there are 574 federally recognized tribes and 324 Native American reservations across the U.S.

Twenty eight states and many cities, rivers and lakes have names derived from Native American heritage. Native Americans and Alaska Natives are people having origins in any of the original peoples of North, South and Central America, and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment. According to the U.S. Census, there were 5.2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives living in the U. S. in 2010; 7.1 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives living in the U. S. in 2020; and there are projected to be 10.1 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives living in the U.S. by July 2060.

Historically, American Indians have the highest record of military service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups. The reasons are deeply rooted in traditional cultural values that drive them to serve their country.

These include a proud warrior tradition, best exemplified by the following qualities said to be inherent to most, if not all, Native American societies: strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom. These qualities closely correlate with military tradition.

The warrior depicted on the accompanying graphic is U.S. Army Technician 5th Grade Joseph Medicine Crow, the last Crow War Chief. Crow earned his distinction as a Crow War Chief while serving as a U.S. Army scout in the 103rd Infantry Division during World War II.

Crow was born in 1913 on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana.  Raised by his elders in the tribe’s warrior tradition, he learned to master his fears, ride bareback, track game and withstand extreme cold.  He also studied those who had previously distinguished themselves in battle. He became the first member of his tribe to earn a master’s degree, and he left his PhD program to volunteer for service in World War II.

During that conflict, he completed all four essential requirements to become a war chief: counting coup (touching an enemy without killing him), taking an enemy’s weapon, leading a successful war party and stealing an enemy’s horse.

Crow ran into a young German soldier during a combat operation, knocking him to the ground. The German soldier lost his weapon. Crow lowered his own weapon, and they began fighting hand-to-hand. As Crow was choking the German soldier, he heard the soldier call out for his mother. Crow released him and let him go. Later in the conflict, Crow led a successful war party and stole 50 horses from a German Nazi SS Camp. As he rode off he sang a traditional Crow war song.

For his actions during WWII, Crow received the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and multiple service awards and ribbons, including the Bronze Star medal, French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Some notable Native Americans are:

Mary Peltola (Rep - D)
A Yup’ik tribe member Representative, Peltola was voted into office in 2022, becoming Alaska’s first female indigenous tribe member to serve the U.S. Congress. 
Raised by a Nebraskan father and Yup’ik mother, Petola grew up on the Kustokwim River near Bethel. The Yup’ik people have fished the area for centuries.
At 6 years old, she began catching salmon commercially with her father. In her mid-20s, after working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, she won a seat in the state house in Juneau. 

For 10 years in the state house, she focused on the Kuskokwim River area, helping to manage a nearby gold-mining project, and advocating for imperiled salmon runs, which are the region’s economic arteries. During her inaugural speech, she said, “It is the honor of my life to represent Alaska, a place my ancestors and elders have called home for thousands of years, where to this day many people in my community carry forward our traditions of hunting and fishing.”

Carol Metcalf-Gardipe – Geologist

Ms. Gardipe’s many roles include director of the American Indian Engineering Program (the first of its kind) and one of seven founders of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). She is also a professor, administrator, and an award-winning geologist who held positions with the U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Lila Downs – Musician

The Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico, and has been singing since she was eight years old. While her Latin style speaks to a global audience, her music also has heavy jazz influences.

Deb Haaland - Secretary of the Interior

Secretary Deb Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. Before joining President Biden's cabinet, Haaland was a Congressional representative for New Mexico's 1st District.  

Emory Sekaquaptewa – Anthropologist

Hopi linguist, anthropologist, scholar, educator, artist, and appellate court judge Emory Sekaquaptewa is best known for developing the first Hopi language dictionary.

Master Sgt. Woodrow W. Keeble – Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

In 2008, Keeble became the first full-blooded Sioux Indian to receive the Medal of Honor. During a battle in the Korean War, his actions saved the lives of fellow Soldiers. He was born in 1917 in Waubay, SD, but spent most of his life growing up near Wahpeton, ND. As the war heated up in Europe, Keeble joined the North Dakota National Guard in 1942. His service included World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Combat Infantryman Badge in addition to the Medal of Honor.