Over 100 years ago, Reverend Red Fox James (also known as Red Fox Skiukusha), a member of the Blackfeet Nation, rode horseback across multiple U.S. states. He carried endorsements from 24 state governments to create a day to honor American Indians. This was neither the first nor last advocacy for the celebration. The first American Indian Day was celebrated in May 1916 in New York.

November was designated as “National American Indian Heritage Month” in 1990, by a joint congressional resolution signed by then-president George H. W. Bush. But we now refer to this as “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”. In 2009, the Friday after Thanksgiving Day was declared as “Native American Heritage Day” by Congress and then-President Barack Obama.

The “First Americans”

Archeological research shows that circa 13,000 years ago, north-central Asian people migrated across the Bering Strait (which connects present-day Siberia and Alaska). These ancestors of today’s American Indians/Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians were indigenous to what is now the United States, having established complex and flourishing societies long before European and other arrivals.

In 2016, the American Indian and Alaska Native population of the United States was about 2%, at 6.7 million. Twenty-one states are home to at least 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native residents each, which are a part of more than 1,000 different tribal groups (currently, there are 562 federally recognized tribes, but many requests are in progress). States with the highest populations include Alaska (almost 20% of its residents), Oklahoma (13.7%), New Mexico (11.9%), and South Dakota (10.4%).

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Contributions to Science and Society

Despite the mistreatment and injustice from European invaders, Native American/American Indians have made countless astonishing contributions to the world. The following is a short and non-exhaustive list, focusing on ancient advances across various groups in the New World.

  • Ecology
    • Thorough knowledge of habitats, ecological communities, temporal variations, and distributions of plants and animals
  • Medicine
    • Discovered medicinal uses for quinine, curare, and ipecac
    • Taught Europeans to prevent scurvy by consumption of plants high in vitamin C (including certain barks, leaves, and mosses)
    • Among the first to discover oral contraceptives and use osteological surgical methods
  • Mathematics & Astronomy
    • The first apparent use of the concept zero
    • Complex and accurate calendars
    • Knowledge of the solstices and their relation to the seasons
  • Agriculture & Botany
    • Development of complex irrigation systems
    • Crops including potatoes, corn, beans, tobacco, chocolate, grains, peanut, cotton, rubber, and gum
      • Several niche-specific strains of corn were developed, which allowed for the widespread contemporary corn production seen today
      • Corn processing techniques were also used that increased the availability of critical essential nutrients (including amino acids and B vitamins) that were otherwise not present in sufficient amounts of the diet for proper health and survival
    • Other uses for plants including dyes and soaps
    • Sophisticated plant taxonomy
  • Architecture
    • Built the largest ancient structures in the New World
    • Used a variety of building materials, including stonework, ceramic, paints, and metallurgy
    • Created climate-controlled dwellings
  • Hundreds of sophisticated languages, including a sign language
    • The Navajo language was used to transmit sensitive information in sophisticated code during World War II
    • Many English words, such as barbecue, hurricane, and hammock
    • Roughly half of the U.S. States have names of Native origin
  • Government structure with federal versus state jurisdiction – based on systems of the Iroquois and others
  • Recreational activities, such as lacrosse, tobogganing, and the game cat’s cradle




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References and More Information


Image Source: “Native American Heritage Month 2017: Standing Together”: US Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. https://www.indianaffairs.gov/as-ia/opa/national-native-american-heritage-month


Brown, J. W. (1975). Native American Contributions to Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Science, 189(4196), 38–40. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.189.4196.38

The Library of Congress. Native American Heritage Month [webpage]. Retrieved from //nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/about/

National Native American Heritage Month Celebration | Indian Affairs. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2017, from https://www.indianaffairs.gov/as-ia/opa/national-native-american-heritage-month

Native American Heritage Month | NCAI. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2017, from http://www.ncai.org/initiatives/native-american-heritage-month

Native American Contributions | Scholastic. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/native-american-contributions/

United States Census Bureau (October 2017). FFF: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2017. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/aian-month.html

Telling All Americans’ Stories: Introduction to Indigenous Heritage (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/articles/taas-indigenousheritage-intro.htm