Native American Heritage Month Reminds Us to Learn the Stories of Our Communities

We are entering that time of year when our lives get busy. We partake in holiday feasts and plan to connect with loved ones. In the whirlwind of these preparations, I was reminded of the importance of hitting the pause button by a very curious five-year-old whose favorite question is “why?” As I made my grocery lists and mapped out my trips to the various grocery stores, my son asked, “Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?” A straightforward response is that we use this holiday to give thanks and gratitude. However, he was not quite satisfied with that answer and followed up with subsequent interrogation. So, I decided to start with a simple story of home.

In our hometown of Tucson, we used to live at the base of a basalt-covered hill.  The hill is dark, black volcanic rock, speckled with wild grass and saguaro cactus. It is a notable and visible city landmark, a popular public park, and a gathering spot for youth and families. A large white letter “A” built by the local university is a prominent fixture at the peak. For several years, it was also the site of our daily family walks together. I explained to him that Tucson was not the city’s original name. Rather, it was Cuk-  Ṣon, meaning “at the base of the black hill.” Long before we lived there, the first people, the Tohono O’odham named it that. They used that hill as a lookout and stewarded the surrounding desert land, growing crops at the base. I explained that our new home in Washington, D.C. also has first people, and we should use this time to learn their stories too.

One inspiring group that exhibits the power of centering stories of place and celebrating heritage very relevantly to our field is Story Riders, a program of the Center of Southwest Culture, Inc. in New Mexico.  This program started in 2017 with a goal to get more youth of color, Indigenous, Mexicano/Chicano youth outdoors. Bicycles became a practical and affordable way to get kids outside and connect with nature. By bicycle, this group explores the bosques filled with cottonwood trees and native plants that surround Albuquerque. They take field trips to connect with elders and native farms to learn indigenous connections of spirituality and agriculture. This program has weaved together opportunities to learn cultural and indigenous heritage, native language, and land-based knowledge sharing, alongside the practicalities of bike safety and mechanics. It is also worth noting that this group was awarded grant funding from the State of New Mexico’s Outdoor Equity Grant to expand the cultural components of this program. This state funding source started in 2020 and continues to grow throughout the state because of the demand for equitable access to parks and outdoor spaces.

In our work, the histories of our towns, communities, and cities matter. Stories are the foundation for our community engagement and how we chart a more equitable path forward. Below are a few resources that can help get you started.