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As early as 1915, Native American advocates began lobbying for nationwide recognition of the contributions made by first Americans in the establishment and growth of the United States.
For many years, this recognition took the form of a single day celebrated in certain states in honor of Native people, according to a resource compiled by the Library of Congress. Then in 1990, President George H. W. Bush designated November as National American Indian Heritage Month, a tradition that has continued to this day.
Connecting young people to their culture
For Quincy Bjornberg, the tobacco education specialist and youth program outreach coordinator for the Helena Indian Alliance, the month is significant. She is a Chippewa-Cree Iskwew, and her Native name is Wap-Ah We-Ah-Mon Iskwew.
“Native American Heritage Month is important for our people to share our rich culture with others,” Bjornberg said. “It’s good for all those residing in the United States to learn and self-educate about Native American issues and culture and to remind people that we are still here.”
Bjornberg said this is especially important for Native youth who struggle to identify with their culture.
“For generations, our people were taught that being Native American was a bad thing,” Bjornberg said. “Native American Heritage Month helps revitalize the pride within ourselves, in our communities, and in urban spaces.”
To help, Bjornberg teaches both Native and non-Native youth, traditional skills like painting, beading, sewing, pottery, and games. These activities are designed to spark an interest in Native culture and connect the young people to ancestral roots in Helena — the traditional land of the Sqelix people, also called Salish, and the Niitsitapi people, also called Blackfeet.
“There is also the Moccasin Flats area, where the old Kmart stands,” Bjornberg said.
In fact, Native people traveled through the Helena area for about 12,000 years, according to the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce. Then, an 1864 gold discovery in Last Chance Creek led to miners descending on the area and establishing the city.
Honoring Native American Heritage Month
Native American Heritage Month is a time to learn about Indigenous people and the challenges they continue to face by using educational resources at the Helena Indian Alliance and by asking questions.
“My advice for anyone who is interested in learning about indigenous peoples is to just ask,” Bjornberg said. “It’s easy to assume or believe stereotypes, but please take the time to actually sit down and learn from an elder or tribal person.”
The Helena Indian Alliance offers literature by Native writers, and staff members can point people in the right direction to learn more.
“There are great people to follow on all social media platforms who share teachings, traditions, and cultural information,” Bjornberg said. “We have a ton of really good local Native people who have wealths of knowledge about their own tribal histories.”
The Helena Indian Alliance is a federally qualified health center that provides local families with behavioral, mental, and health care. Its services include programs for Native people as well as cultural activities and classes open to the general public.
“At our core, we are focused on the healing of our community members’ spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being,” Bjornberg said. “Many people don’t know that the circle of our turtle logo represents the medicine wheel, which is broken into those four main parts of ourselves.”
For more information on services and classes provided by the Helena Indian Alliance, visit hia-mt.org.