Native American Heritage Month - a Time to Honor the Contributions of Our Nation's First Peoples

Amid all of the holiday celebrations and time spent with family this month, I encourage Americans to take some time to reflect on something that is too often forgotten: the rich history and cultural traditions of our Native American community.

By the time the Jamestown colony was founded in Virginia in 1607, the most accurate estimates are there were substantially more than 30 million Native Americans thriving in numerous tribes and cultures from the North American shores of Alaska to the tip of Cape Horn in South America. Unfortunately, the treatment of Native Americans over the next 300 years is one of the darkest chapters in American history.

Today, we recognize November as Native American Heritage Month, a time to honor the heritage and culture of our tribal communities, and to celebrate the vast contributions of our nation's first peoples. Throughout history Native Americans have made significant contributions to our nation, our society, and our culture:

• The Constitutional separation of powers of our government was based on the structure of the Iroquois Nation;
• As an ambassador of peace, Sacajawea guided Lewis and Clark on their exploration across the west to the Pacific coast.
• Jim Thorpe brought glory to the United States, winning two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics;
• Jim Plunkett is one of only four men to win both the Heisman trophy and Super Bowl MVP;
• Hopi, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Winnebago, Seminole, Navajo and Cherokee used their languages as secret codes to protect American forces in several wars. Navajo "codetalkers" created and memorized a code based on the Navajo language which helped the Marines win the Pacific campaign in World War II;
• Louis Charlo, a member of the Salish Tribe, heroically participated in the first raising of the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima;
• Notah Begay has won four PGA tour events in his career, and is only the third golfer ever to shoot 59 in a professional event; and
• Today, Native Americans have the highest per capita enlistment rate in the Armed Serves for any ethnic group in the United States.

I believe it is of critical importance that we give appropriate recognition to the cultural advances that Native Americans have made, and continue to make, to our society. As a California State Assemblyman in 1998, I introduced legislation which established the fourth Friday of September as Native American Day in California, a day Californians still recognize today. And in 2008 and 2009, Congress passed legislation I introduced, establishing the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. My legislation also encourages a greater emphasis on teaching about the history, traditions, and accomplishments of Native American leaders in our schools.

In addition, in Congress I have consistently advocated for greater tribal sovereignty and fought to protect Native gaming and water rights. In my service as Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) during the 110th Congress, I successfully worked to defeat English-only amendments that would have threatened the existence of Native languages, and led efforts to force PBS to include the contributions of Native American veterans in the World War II documentary, "The War."

Amid the family dinners, football, and shopping this week, let's take some time to recognize our continent's original inhabitants -- Native Americans, and their many contributions that have greatly enriched the United States.

Rep. Joe Baca represents the 43rd U.S. Congressional District of California. He is the primary sponsor of the bill which established the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day.