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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.

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