08/09/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2014

On Indigenous Peoples Day, Let's Move on to a New View of Native Americans


When most Americans think of Native peoples, if they think of us at all, they think of Thanksgiving and its benign legend of Pilgrims and Native Americas sitting down together to a shared meal long, long ago. Unfortunately, the collective American gestalt places its indigenous peoples in the past, part of a bygone regrettable era. We were the unlucky sacrifice to the pre-ordained rights inherent in the mentality of Manifest Destiny that permitted European takeover of our lands. Sad, yes, but time to move on.

It is, indeed, time to move on. Time to move on to a new view of Native Americans and all indigenous peoples. The International Day of the World's Indigenous People, August 9, presents an opportunity to see and celebrate contemporary indigenous peoples, especially here in America.

According to the United Nation's website:

"Indigenous peoples represent remarkable diversity -- more than 5,000 distinct groups in some 90 countries. They make up more than 5 per cent of the world's population, some 370 million people. Yet, they are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Today, many indigenous peoples struggle to remain on their lands and retain the right to their natural resources. Other indigenous peoples have long since been removed from their lands, denied their languages and traditional ways, and have consequently been left impoverished."

The International Day of the World's Indigenous People was first proclaimed in 1994 by the United Nations General Assembly. The theme for the decade from 2004 to 2014 is "A Decade for Action and Dignity," and the theme for this years celebration is "Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples."

Here in the United States, there are over 500 federally recognized Native American tribes. Diverse and unique with distinctive languages and cultures, they actively maintain their ways and fight to maintain their sovereignty over their lands and communities.

Many Native groups are currently involved in battles to save the health of their lands and communities. These efforts hold important messages for everybody, Native and non-Native alike as the world battles the common threat of climate change exacerbated by irresponsible mining and extractive fossil fuel industries.

For instance, many tribes are exerting their sovereignty by enacting their own Environmental Protection Agency, EPA standards for water and air. Currently the Bad River tribe of Wisconsin Ojibwe is using their EPA standards in efforts to stave off the creation of a large open pit iron ore taconite mine that they say will poison their land and water.

Tribes in Alaska successfully used a similar tactic to halt silver and gold mining earlier this year near Bristol Bay.

Alaskan Native groups, for the time being, have staved off the proposed open pit copper-gold-molybdenum Pebble Mine located in the world's largest sockeye salmon runs.

Since Native communities often rely, at least partially, on subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering to feed their families, they are among the first people to experience the impact of climate change.

Indian Country Today Media Network reported from an EPA statement,

"Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

According to information on the U.N.:

Most indigenous peoples have highly specialized land use practices and livelihood strategies developed over generations. These are embedded in knowledge and belief systems that are often undocumented and are governed by customary institutions that remain unrecognized by many States. In the midst of the financial, environmental, and climatic crises facing humanity, there is growing recognition of the contribution of indigenous peoples' traditional knowledge to sustainable low-carbon development, ecosystem management, biodiversity conservation, and climate change adaptation.

In other words, Native peoples are like the canaries that miners carried in to coal mines long ago to predict the presence of dangerous gas.

Since Native communities often rely, at least partially, on subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering to feed their families, they are among the first people to experience the impact of climate change.

Unlike the miner's canaries, however, we intend to survive and so we are fighting for our lands and our ways.

Our traditions and spirituality are essential elements of our survival. As human beings we know this. Unfortunately, much of the world has forgotten.

I am taking time off from one of my people's most important ceremonies to write this article. Although, like many Native Americans, I live far from my reservation and extended family, I return often for prayer and renewal. The tie to land, culture, language and spirituality is vibrant and alive for contemporary Native peoples. We continue to pray and hold ceremony for our relatives and the great gift of the earth. These acts are not part of a quaint past; they remain richly embedded in our hearts and bellies. The honoring and recognition of this tie and feeling may the greatest gift that Native peoples have to share with other humans who seem to have lost their way.

This is not an endorsement of New Age ritual or suggestion that one should join a particular religion or organization but an urging to acknowledge your role and responsibility as a human citizen on this earth. So, on Indigenous Peoples Day, take some time to give thanks to the Creator for the great gift of life and look to how you can be of service to the theme of this celebration. Educate yourself about the issues facing indigenous peoples today and you may find they are quite similar to those concerns you have for your own family and community.