This sample speech for Native American Heritage month is intended for use by speakers at Native Indians events honoring the Native American heritage. These keynote remarks may be modified to fit the event where you are speaking or used as is.
Native American Heritage Month speech / American Indian Heritage Month speech
This speech can be used for any event recognizing the culture and heritage of Native American, American Indian, First Nation and Indigenous people. It is intended to be used for Native American Heritage Month events, but it can be easily modified for use at a different event. It is designed for use by a keynote speaker. It can be used for free but remains the property of Canuwrite.com.
I'd like to begin by saying how pleased I am to have been invited to speak here today. It's truly an honor to join all of you in recognizing Native American Heritage Month.
We cannot talk about America without recognizing the many contributions, the rich cultural diversity and the historical legacy of Native Americans. Our story, our American story, is rooted in the legacy of the people who were here first.
It’s a story that has many tragedies. It’s a history that is not easy to learn about because we see that the first Americans were often treated very poorly by those who came after. Treaties made by Europeans were often dishonest, were not negotiated fairly or were not respected. Native peoples were pushed off their lands so others could settle there, and they were pushed onto ever dwindling reservations. They were chased from their homes by men with guns and families were forced to march the Trail of Tears. They lost children, elderly and even healthy adults along the way to famine, illness, sheer exhaustion and perhaps death of spirit. American Indians fought to keep their cultures alive when traditional practices were banned and when missionaries brought new religions that undercut their spiritual beliefs. Native children were taken from their parents and made to attend boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues or follow the traditions of their ancestors. Threatened native peoples fought against the U.S. Army, fought against settlers, fought against each other. It’s a story of conflict, death, pestilence, genocide.
But that is not the only story. We cannot ignore the tragic past that befell Native Americans, but it’s to our detriment if we do not also recognize that there is more to the story. The heritage of Native Americans is also one of resilience, of strength and of determination. It’s a story of overcoming overwhelming odds to survive, adapt and build a new sense of community. It’s a story of maintaining and honoring cultural heritage while fighting through adversity to find a new way to be American. I want to tell you a few stories about people who have found ways to honor their heritage of being Native American.
First, I’d like to tell you about a woman who is preserving her heritage against the slow, erosive trickle of time. As is often the case, she is an elder who is protecting her culture by passing it on to the younger generations. She is not highly educated or famous or important. She is simply determined.
The Yokut people of California once numbered around 70,000 according to some estimates. Their population has decreased dramatically, and today there are about 2,000 people recognized as Yokut. Historically, the tribe spoke a language called Wukchumni (wuck-chum-nee) but as English replaced the language, fewer and fewer people spoke it. The language was slowly disappearing and with it, many of the old stories of the Yokut people. Finally, after the death of a relative, an elderly woman named Marie Wilcox realized she was probably the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni.
Born in 1933, she had learned Wukchumni from her grandmother, who had also taught her the old stories and fables of their people. Remembering these stories and history, Marie decided she couldn’t let the language of her ancestors disappear with her. She started taking notes, writing down all the words she could remember one by one on scraps of paper so she could teach her children and grandchildren. Then she decided to compile these words into a dictionary. She started working at her computer, slowly typing with one finger. Her daughter began helping her, and for seven years they worked together to compile the first Wukchumni dictionary. Through this process, Marie’s grandson got involved. After the dictionary was completed, he started recording his grandmother reading all the words from her dictionary, from A to Z, so the pronunciation won’t be lost. In the process of making the dictionary, Marie’s daughter picked up some of the language but her grandson was really able to latch onto it, and now he can speak easily with his grandmother in Wukchumni. Together, they have also begun offering Wukchumni lessons to people in their tribe, and slowly the language is returning from the dead to become a spoken language for the Yokut people again.
Through perseverance and steadfast determination, Marie Wilcox and her family have saved their language and a vital piece of their cultural heritage from extinction. A film maker recently made a short documentary about Marie and her family. Through their efforts, they’re inspiring other Native American speakers of endangered languages. Linguistic experts estimate that there are 130 Native American languages in danger of extinction today. Now many of these languages are being documented, recorded and put into online databases so the languages don’t disappear. Sometimes the efforts of one person can make a huge difference. Sometimes, even against great odds, it’s just a matter of one person deciding to go ahead and try.
I’d like to tell you about another group of people who didn’t give up on their heritage – the people of the Acoma (ACK-uh-ma) pueblo in New Mexico. A few hour’s drive from Albuquerque, way out in the desert, there is a mesa towering high above the desert floor. It’s covered in small, historic adobe houses and it’s called “Sky City” by the Acoma people who live there. Acoma pueblo claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the Americas, although there are also historic Hopi pueblos that compete for the title. Either way, the Acoma people have been living there for at least 800 years, but their traditions say they’ve been there for 2,000.
At 365 feet above the desert floor, the mesa made an ideal citadel. Historically, it could only be reached by climbing a small, steep set of stairs. The Acoma people had built cisterns at the top for collecting rain water and snow and granaries for food so they could withstand siege and could not be easily invaded. The small community had lived there safely for centuries, possibly even millennia, to protect themselves from other Native American tribes. There were many diverse tribes living in the desert, both those with permanent homes and the nomadic tribes. They sometimes fought territorial disputes.
However, when the Spanish began their conquest of the southwest, they didn’t know or care about the diversity of the tribes or their territories. They simply claimed it all. They soon came into conflict with the people of Acoma and other pueblos. A relationship that started with trading and exploration quickly soured as suspicion and violence took over. In 1598, the Spanish were able to successfully invade Acoma and they burned large parts of the village. They massacred people indiscriminately, including children, killing about 800 people, or six percent of the population. When the fighting was done and the Acoma surrendered, the Spanish leader, Juan de Onate decided to continue the cruelty. As punishment for resistance, Onate ordered his soldiers to round up the men in the village over the age of 25. Then they systematically went one by and one and cut off the men’s right foot. For the other surviving villagers, the Spanish enslaved most of the women, the children and the men younger than 25 for a period of 20 years. The survivors tried to rebuild. For years, the Acoma had to pay tribute to the Spanish by giving up much of their food crop. Yet they could barely feed themselves after the mutilation and enslavement of most of the people of working age. They struggled to keep their home atop the mesa, their beautiful city in the clouds, alive.
Yet, the invading Spanish were not content to merely kill the people, enslave them and take their goods. They also tried to crush their faith and traditions. They forced the Acoma to abandon their religious beliefs and convert to Christianity. In public the Acoma followed the Spanish but in private they kept their traditions alive. The Spanish made the Acoma people cut and drag logs 40 miles from a distant mountain to Sky City. Then they had to heave the logs up the mesa to build a Catholic church on top. Can you imagine mutilated men with one foot hobbling along to heave logs when they could barely stand; women wearing babies on their back dragging this immense weight for miles; elderly people weak with hunger toiling under the hot sun, and all to build a church? We are shocked today by such horrific inhumanity for the supposed glory of God. That church still stands today. You can go and visit it and see the unbelievable work forced up on these enslaved people.
At the same time, the Spanish had enslaved and inflicted inhumanities upon the people of the surrounding pueblos as well. The inhumane treatment continued for years until the Pueblo revolt of 1680. The people of the pueblos rose up and by cooperating among the tribes, they were able to drive out the Spanish rulers and regain their independence. The Spanish would return as occupiers again 12 years later, to continue their subjugation of the native people. However, they would never succeed in crushing the spirit of the pueblo people or their shared resistance to oppression. They weren’t able to stamp out the pueblo people’s culture, history or identity. In fact, even 400 years later, it’s clear that they haven’t forgotten their people’s history.
In 1998, 400 years after the massacre at Acoma, a town in New Mexico erected a statue in honor of Juan de Onate, the general who had ordered the severing of the men’s feet. It was controversial and Native people weren’t happy about the new statue. That was made abundantly clear by means of a silent protest. One morning, the city awoke to find that under the cover of night, someone had visited the statue to make sure no one forgot what Onate had done. The protesters had snuck in during the night and cut off the statue’s right foot.
Over the generations, Acoma rebuilt its society. They didn’t allow years of adversity to destroy their village and culture. Today, Acoma pueblo is a living, thriving community and it has adapted to survive by opening its village to tourists. Tens of thousands of people drive out to the desert every year to visit the ancient city in the sky. The Acoma people have used the opportunity to find a new way to exhibit their culture. Acoma, like other pueblos in the Southwest, is famous for their exquisitely detailed painted pottery. Through their art, their visitor’s center and tours, and their willingness to teach others, they continue to honor their culture, their history and their people.
Finally, I want to tell you about one more notable person of Native American ancestry.
(NOTE: This section can be replaced with a local Native American hero. Search for a Medal of Honor recipient from your state or someone else of note).
Charles George was born in North Carolina in 1932, a member of the Eastern band of the Cherokee. Cut off from the larger bands of Cherokee, the Eastern Band was a small but tight-knit community. Despite a complex relationship with the country that had often treated them poorly, the Eastern Band had a strong history of service in the U.S. military. During World War One, every eligible man in the band signed up to fight for America. Amazingly, they were fighting for a country in which they could not vote and in which they were not yet considered citizens. It was not until 1924 that Native Americans were uniformly granted U.S. citizenship. Despite this, the men of the Eastern Band felt it was their duty to fight. Again, in World War two, the men of the Eastern Band volunteered. Charles George had grown up watching his relatives serving in the military, and so when the Korean war began, George followed the warrior tradition of his people, and signed up to serve.
Private First Class George was sent to serve in the 170th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division in Korea. The fighting was vicious and brutal and the men knew every day might be their last. A few days after Thanksgiving of 1952, Private George was with his unit just a little west of Seoul. They received orders to charge up a hill as part of a raiding party to catch an enemy soldier for interrogation. Against heavy machine gun and mortar fire, George and his fellow brothers in arms charged up the rugged hill. He saw fellow soldiers fall to his right and left, some wounded and some beyond any help, but he kept going. As they reached the top of the hill, he jumped into a trench with two other American soldiers and engaged in hand-to-hand combat to secure the position.
When the company was set to move again, George and the two other soldiers stayed behind to cover their withdrawal. All of a sudden a grenade dropped into the trench with George and the other men, an attack from the advancing enemy soldiers. Without a moment’s hesitation, George shoved his fellow soldiers out of the way and leaped on top of the grenade. He absorbed the whole power of the blast with his body, saving the two other soldiers. As they turned George over, he was still alive and they could see he was suffering from terrible pain. But at that point, the last of the company was trying quietly withdraw. If they made noise, they’d be noticed by the enemy and would all be killed. Despite his pain, George never uttered a sound so as to avoid drawing attention to the men. They carried him back behind the lines and medics tried to save his life, but ultimately they were unable. He died looking up at the night sky of Korea, miles from his home along a river in North Carolina. He was only 22 when he gave his life in service of his country, a sacrifice made to protect his fellow warriors. The two other soldiers in the trench with him both survived the war and went home to have families of their own. George was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. His parents spoke only their native language and had never before left their small reservation in North Carolina, but they traveled to Washington D.C. to accept the Medal of Honor on behalf of their son. George is still honored to this day by his people in North Carolina. He joined the legacy of Cherokee warriors who had been lost in battle. George honored the warrior legacy of his people by volunteering to serve. We honor his sacrifice as a Cherokee and as an American. He is just one of the many Native Americans who have served our country and made the ultimate sacrifice.
Of the people I’ve spoken of above, Marie Wilcox and her family, the people of Acoma pueblo and Private First Class Charles George, they were all faced with adversity. For Wilcox and her tribe, the Yokut, they faced the loss of their language and shared history. For the Acoma, they fought deliberate attempts to stamp out their way of life and their culture. And for Charles George (Or local person), he faced the unimaginable situation of sacrificing his life to protect his fellow warriors.
Each of these people I’ve spoken about had to make a decision. Should they take the easy way out and go the path of least resistance? Should they let go of their values and their culture? Should they decide that it was too hard to live up to the legacy of their people? Or should they hold to the values of their ancestors and use them to serve others?
They decided to stand up with determination, perseverance and courage. They chose the hard path and their efforts made a difference. It shows we can all make a difference. We all have contributions to make. We can all choose to stand firm in the face of adversity, hold true to our values and serve our communities. Although most Americans are not descended from Native Americans, we can all celebrate their heritage and how it has strengthened our nation. We can recognize and honor the lessons they have to teach us. We can remember that we are all part of one community, each of us threads in the fabric of this remarkable quilt called America.
I’ve shared with you only a few examples of Native American heritage and contributions to our nation, but I could go on and on. From the great peacemaker and leader of his people Chief Joseph to Sacagawea who guided Lewis and Clarke’s across the nation carrying a baby on her back; to warriors like Sitting Bull and Private First Class Charles George (or mention the local Native American person of note from your state here), Native American people have contributed to every facet of American life.
We must remember that when we talk about Native American history, we must learn about and recognize the past but we cannot stop there. Native American heritage continues today in towns and cities and reservations across America. Whether serving as elected officials or fighting for Civil Rights, whether producing art as painters, sculptors and weavers, or maintaining the history of cultural legacies for future generations, there are people across America who celebrate Native American heritage with their actions every day. It is important that we remember to keep learning about Native American culture and teaching our children to appreciate the distinctive beauty and cultural wealth of the first Americans. It is through learning and honoring these people that we can ensure that their cultural legacies continue to enrich our American way of life for generations to come.
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