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Native~American Day
24 September 2021

The American Community Survey, compiled between 2008 and 2012 and being the most recent analysis, identified 0.2% of the total population of Bedford County as descending from Indigenous ancestors.

When the North American continent was formed, there were no truly indigenous human beings inhabiting the land. The first immigrants were once believed to be Eurasians who crossed over the Beringia land bridge approximately 12,000 years ago. The dating of the migration has come into refute in recent years, but the concept of how people came to inhabit the continents of the western hemisphere has remained mostly consistent. There have been a few other theories of how humans came to be in the Western Hemisphere, though. Those other theories include the Solutrean Hypothesis, which states that the Solutrean peoples migrated from the European Continent along a path of exposed land including Iceland and Vinland. There are theories also that some Polynesian people migrated via boats to the western shores of South America.

The peoples that were here prior to the explosion of European exploration in the 15th Century were named by early Hispanic explorers as Indians, believing that they were inhabiting the Indian subcontinent. Those earliest peoples were renamed Native Americans by the U. S. Census Bureau in the 1950s in order to differentiate them from other people of color on the census rolls. The people themselves tended to simply call themselves variations of the phrase the first people. The name Amerindians has been coined by anthropologists to denote the first people to inhabit the continents in the Western Hemisphere. Regardless of the name by which we know them, the descendants of the first peoples to sojourn in this land tended not to celebrate any specific day as a 'national' holiday.

The problem with trying to determine what particular day the 'Native' Americans would celebrate as a tribute to their culture is that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, no single 'nation' to which all of the peoples belonged actually existed. In fact, the European concept of the 'nation' did not even exist in Amerindian culture. They were divided ~ and united ~ by language. They followed tribal customs and those tribes existed as lineage-based groups speaking the same language. Their tribal affiliation was to the female line, and when a man married a woman, he left his own tribe and became part of her tribe.

In recent years, displeasure with the celebration of the European explorers, especially of Christopher Columbus (whose 'discovery' motivated waves of European immigration into North America) has led many of the descendants of the first peoples to celebrate, but primarily in opposition to the Italian explorer. Different states proclaimed holidays over the years with the intention to provide Amerindians a forum to protest against Columbus Day. Negative protest, though, does not instill pride in any ethnic group.

During the Twentieth Century, various days have been designated as ethnic heritage days for Amerindian culture in various parts of the country. New York State, in 1916, declared the second Saturday in May as American Indian Day. Illinois followed New York's example and declared the same day as the holiday in 1919. In 1935, Massachusetts likewise declared an American Indian Day to honor the ethnic heritage of her residents who claimed Amerindian descent. In 1939, the state of California established a holiday that was initially named Indian Day. Four decades passed before the President of the United States of America designated a day to be celebrated as an ethnic heritage day throughout the nation for the descendants of the first peoples. In 1976, during the U.S.'s Bicentennial, President Gerald Ford proclaimed Native American Awareness Week to be observed during October. He left the exact date up to the individual states' discretion. During its International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, the United Nations proclaimed Indigenous Peoples' Day in 1977. The year 1989 saw South Dakota proclaiming the following year of 1990 as the Year of Reconciliation for the Native Americans and designated the day normally celebrated as Columbus Day as Native American Day. The year 1992 was declared, by California, to be the Year of Indigenous People and formally dropped Columbus Day from its list of holidays. Native~American Day was established on a different day and month: the fourth Friday in September. The day was officially established in 1998 by California Governor Ronald Reagan. The fourth Monday of September was declared to be American Indian Day by Tennessee in 1994.

At the present time, there are two ethnic-based holidays celebrated by descendants of the first peoples: 'Indigenous Peoples Day' and 'Native American Day.' The second Monday in October, in opposition to the celebration of Columbus Day, is celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day in the states of Alaska, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Between 1992 and the present, many individual cities in other states have declared the holiday despite the state not having done so. Because it is primarily a day in opposition to Columbus Day, with its coincident position of negativity, it is not the holiday to be celebrated here.

Native American Day is celebrated by learning about the culture of and the beliefs embraced by the tribes of Amerindians on the North American continent. Much of the culture of the Amerindians was derived from their reverence for the earth and nature's bounty and their respect for the animals with which they shared the land's riches. Many, if not most, of the Amerindian tribes cherished their creation myths. Very often the creation myth of a particular tribe related how everything in the world, and even the first peoples themselves, were created by a particular animal spirit. The animal spirit which any tribal group chose to represent their creator tended to be chosen for the special attributes of that animal to be emulated. Amerindians respected and honored their creator animal spirit, but they did not worship it.

Many Amerindian tribes also respected and honored plants and believed that spirits existed in plants as well as animals. Before cutting plants, a prayer would be offered to thank the plant's spirit for the life-force which it was about to give up for the nourishment of the people. In particular, Amerindians cherished the 'Three Sisters.' The Three Sisters consisted of maize (i.e. corn), winter squash and beans. Seeds of these three vegetables were planted together in the same mound in the process known as companion planting. The corn would be planted first and when it was about half a foot high, the squash and beans were planted around it. If the soil was depleted, a dead fish or eel would be buried in the mound when the corn was planted. The beans, growing on a climbing vine, would wind its way up the corn stalk. The squash, bearing broad leaves, would keep moisture trapped around the mound. The beans, as they grew, would give off nitrogen, which was needed by the corn and squash. The Three Sisters existed in a symbiotic relationship and although the Amerindians did not have that name for it, they knew that the three were interdependent on each other.

The crafts of beadwork and woven textiles were highly prized by the descendants of the first peoples and contributed to the culture. Beadwork, the cutting of small beads out of shells or bone and then stringing them, found its crowning achievement in wampum. Wampum was often created out of white shells from a form of whelk, or sea snail, and purple shells from quahog, or hard-shell clam. They would be strung on animal sinews or strong plant fibers. Strings of beads made from these shells would then be woven into 'belts' bearing images. The wampum kept the stories of a tribe and often served as currency among different tribes. In regard to the textile arts (which includes basketry), the women of a tribe created woven mats and rugs out of plant fibers and animal fur and skins. Using soft materials, they created woven fabric which they used for their clothing. Their woven products were both utilitarian and decorative. Unlike wampum, the textiles tended to be decorative just for the sake of being appealing and therefore could be considered to be art instead of craft.

As noted above, the three sisters provided many of the 'first peoples' with the ingredients for many dishes that Native~Americans enjoy to this day. Soups and stews were standard dishes. The first soup that should be noted is Three Sisters Soup, and as its name implies, consists of the three ingredients of corn, beans and squash. Corn kernels, whatever type of beans are handy and squash or zucchini are diced into small chunks and added to a pot of water and boiled. Potatoes might also be added to the pot. As the pot cooks, flour mixed with lard is added to thicken it a bit. The buffalo that provided Native~Americans with many commodities such as furs for clothing and shelters also provided the main ingredient for a stew appropriately called Buffalo Stew. The stew is composed of chunks of buffalo meat and vegetables such as corn, peas and potatoes. As the stew cooks, a little bit of flour or cornmeal may be added to thicken the liquid. Paganens, or Algonquin Nut Soup, uses hazelnuts, or filberts, as the main ingredient. The nuts are heated until the shells easily rub off. Then they are chopped into small pieces and combined with shallots or onions and parsley in a vegetable stock. The soup is boiled for an hour to a smooth consistency.

Almost as popular as stews and soups which make use of the 'Three Sisters' are vegetable dishes. A dish that is often associated with Native~American cuisine is Succotash. The name translates as 'corn.' The basic recipe is corn and lima beans cooked in water. The original recipe consisted only of vegetables, but some people add beef, chicken or pork to the dish. Modern cooks also add various herbs to spice up the somewhat bland flavor. Baked Pumpkin is also a popular dish utilizing just one ingredient: a pumpkin. The pumpkin is cut into quarters and the seeds and pulp are removed. The quarters are then baked in an oven for about an hour. The resulting tender 'flesh' is scraped from the skin and is then eaten in the same way that baked potatoes are eaten. Squash, the name which comes from the Narragansett word 'askutasquash' meaning 'eaten raw,' is most often roasted until the skin softens and the flesh is baked through like a sweet potato. Butternut squash, after being roasted, is often cut into chunks which are then sprinkled with cinnamon and drizzled with maple syrup.

Corn by itself was ground into cornmeal or flour to be used in various dishes. It was mixed with water and salt to make Bannock, a very basic type of bread. The ingredients would be mixed together and the resulting batter would be kneaded and pounded into a flat disc. The disc was then greased on both sides and fried for just a couple minutes to produce a bread that was hard and crunchy on the outside and moist and doughy on the inside. Bannock is often called Cornpone. The word 'pone' is derived from the Algonquian word ahpon, which means 'bread' so the name 'cornpone' literally means 'cornbread.' A food similar to bannock is Frybread. Frybread, like bannock consists of just any type of flour such as cornmeal mixed with water and kneaded into a solid batter. But unlike bannock, frybread was deep fried, not just greased and fried. The deep frying gave the bread a different texture and resulted in something closer to a tortilla. Like a taco, the frybread is used like a pocket to hold various ingredients such as meat and vegetables.

Meat has always been a staple of Native~American cuisine. Although domesticated livestock, such as cows, sheep and pigs were not generally raised by Native~Americans, they hunted wild bovids such as bison, deer, caribou and elk for their pelts and meat. Even squirrel, groundhog, beaver, opposum and turtle served as meat sources. Meat was most often boiled in ceramic pots set in the glowing embers of a fire. Poyha Chicken and Cornmeal Loaf, what might be called simply 'meatloaf' today, was a dish using chicken or turkey. The meat of these fowl would be cut into small pieces and mixed with cornmeal and eggs. Sometimes corn, onions and other diced up vegetables are added to the mixture and all kneaded together and shaped into a loaf to be baked or fried.

In some cases, dishes were created using the meat after it was boiled. A dish that originated in the Cree Nation, but spread throughout the Native~American peoples, is Pemmican. Pemmican consists of some sort of lean meat, such as deer, moose, caribou or beef that is roasted until crispy and then pulverized to a powder. That powder is then combined with powdered dried fruit and nuts and then mixed with rendered fat that is heated to a liquid. The resulting mixture is patted into balls and then left to cool before being eaten.

The early native peoples often added a Salad of fresh greens to their meals. Their salads were not based around lettuce, though. Their salad dishes consisted of sorrel, watercress and dandelion, three wild greens that grew in abundance just about anywhere. An oil made by compressing butternut squash seeds would be flavored with herbs to make a dressing for their salads.

When berries, such as blueberries, strawberries or even chokeberries, were in season, a dessert was created by mixing the berries with flour, sugar (or some other sweetener such as maple syrup) and water. Baking the mixture resulted in a sort of biscuit. Another dessert dish is Indian Pudding. This dish consists of cornmeal, molasses, milk, sugar, butter and cinnamon mixed together and steamed in a double boiler. Sapan is a type of pudding consisting of cornmeal mixed with water or milk and boiled. The resulting, semi-solid mush is let to cool, after which it is cut into smaller pieces and fried in a pan. The dish is then eaten with maple syrup or molasses.

Native~Americans drank water, but most often boiled it as a tea with berries or other ingredients such as pine needles to flavor it. Cassina, or 'black drink' was a tea made from the leaves of the yaupon holly plant. As the plant has emetic properties, the drink was reserved for ritual vomiting ceremonies. The sap of the paper birch tree, similar to maple syrup, was also a common ingredient in tea. It was also used to make Birch Beer a fermented form of the tea.

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