Hau Kola (Hello Friend.)
Robert Cook
November 14, 2012

This week Pass The Chalk features posts from contributors who learn, teach and work in Native communties in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

Hau Mitakuyapi, Anpetu waste. Robert Cook emaciyapi yelo, Oglala Lakota hemaca yelo. Na iyuha cante wasteya nape ciyuzapi yelo.  (Good Day relatives, my name is Robert Cook, I am from the Oglala Lakota Nation and I shake your hand with a good heart.)

Each year since 1990, the sitting President of the United States issues an official Proclamation declaring November Native American Heritage Month.  American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are the indigenous people of the United States. In fact, archeological evidence shows inhabitants living in this country for over 50,000 years.  My own Lakota ancestry has oral stories that place our origin in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, the heart of the Great Sioux Nation where we continue to live and honor our cultural identity. 

Photo courtesy Turn685 via Wikimedia Commons

In 1492, when Columbus first arrived to what Europeans named the “New World” he met thousands of indigenous people living free in the Caribbean Islands. For the next 400 years, millions of Natives died of disease and warfare. By 1900, at the close of the largest mass genocide in history, there was less than 200,000 American Indians in the United States.

Today, there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States with over two million members and nearly five million U.S. citizens who identify their own ancestry as American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian.  There is tremendous diversity within our indigenous nations.  Although we only comprise 1 percent of the total U.S. population, our nations make up 50 percent of the Nation’s languages and cultures.  These indigenous languages, unique only to the Americas, do not exist anywhere else on this planet.

Members of a federally recognized tribe are eligible for programs that were negotiated to fulfill the federal “Treaty and Trust Responsibility” in response to millions of acres of land and resources being taken legally and illegally from the sovereign tribal nations. American Indians and Alaska Natives have struggled in the past century to regain and protect their right of self-determination, governance and local control. The failure to expand economic development and great education opportunities to American Indian reservations has resulted in some of poorest counties in the United States being located on reservations. 

This month and each day to follow, we must take time to reflect, integrate appropriate and respectful lessons, engage and celebrate the rich heritage and ongoing cultural contributions of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Nations.   We must commit to learning more about historical and contemporary issues affecting tribes.

It is not acceptable for Native children to lead the nation each year with the highest dropout and lowest graduation rates.  It is not acceptable for Native children to have classrooms without effective teachers.  We must work alongside allies and partners to confront and address these challenges, so all children have opportunities to pursue their hopes and fulfill their dreams.

Robert Cook is managing director of Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative. To learn more about the Native Achievement Initiative’s recruitment efforts, our work in Native regions, our national partnerships or how you can get more involved, please visit www.teachforamerica.org/nai.  

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