California Native American Day

In 1939, California Gov. Culbert Olson declared October 1 as ‘Indian Day.’ It was one of the first days established to recognize Native Americans and their cultures across the country.

Then in 1968, Gov. Ronald Reagan declared the fourth Friday of September as ‘California Indian Day’ and the state continues to celebrate this occasion today. Next week, we look forward to Native American Day in California.

Traction has grown over the years for formalizing holidays celebrating Native peoples and cultures. Even now, push for an important shift and removal of Columbus Day knocks on the doors of many other cities.

For many non-Natives, it may be hard to remember why this push started, or why it’s needed in the first place. After all, history classes teach that Christopher Columbus was the one who ‘discovered’ America, and this ‘discovery’ led to the 13 colonies being established by England.

However, many Indigenous Americans take offense when the “discovery” of America is credited to Christopher Columbus. More than that, it can be appalling when a figure like Columbus is even considered for any kind of celebration.

Time after time, Columbus has been shown to be a man who explored the world, but he was also a cruel man. In his journal, he recorded his intentions regarding the tribes he encountered – and it’s easy to see they were malicious and self-serving. One of Columbus’ first Indigenous encounters was with the Taino of the Caribbean, of whom he said:

“They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces…they do not carry arms or know them… they should be good servants.”

In his travels, Columbus was no stranger to slave trade, prostitution and even genocide.  A man who commits acts such as these should not be celebrated. Taught about, sure, but only to understand how his actions and mindset influenced first encounters between the First Americans and European settlers.

Even though Columbus mostly travelled the Caribbean and parts of coastal Central and South America, he represents for many Indigenous peoples the first encounter with Europeans. Contempt for his behaviors is connected not only with the man himself but also with the conquerors who followed him years later. Thus, celebrating Columbus is viewed as also celebrating the actions of those conquerors.

Whatever your state calls the holiday – Native American Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, American Indian Day – celebrating our First Nations is important as it’s easy to forget a time when genocide and assimilation decimated our lifestyles and limited practice of our traditions. Instead of Columbus Day, we celebrate the survival of our cultures and the beauty in the uniqueness of Indigenous peoples. We remember that not all tribes were fortunate enough to have survived – and we remember our ancestors who did not.

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The Native American Vote is Critical – and in Jeopardy this Election

The 2020 presidential election is fast approaching with only 49 days to go. Native Americans represent a critical voting group that has the ability to make the difference between victory and defeat, particularly in swing states such as Arizona.

However, people are stepping away from the polls and opting to vote by mail to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19. We’re facing a historical election where roughly 80 million people will be voting by mail. This will create barriers to voting for Native Americans living in rural reservation communities that those living in urban areas do not face.

With many houses on reservations lacking a “standard” mailing address, getting a ballot delivered is already difficult for many Native voters. Many Native Americans lack access to public transportation and cannot afford the added fuel cost of traveling to vote on Election Day. At the same time, rough and dirt roads on remote reservations can become impassable in early November and deter on-time ballot mailing. Though seemingly simple realities, they all make voting more difficult for Native Americans.

To further complicate this, the U.S. Postal Service recently announced significant budget cuts that could impact voting for millions of Americans, particularly those in rural areas. The budget cuts will cause the mail sorting and delivery process to slow down. Any issues rural Native voters were already facing to voting by mail will be amplified by these cuts.

States have been confronted with hundreds of lawsuits in recent weeks urging the USPS to suspend or revert these changes out of concerns that the cuts will violate voting rights. Individuals living on remote reservations are concerned that these changes could mean their ability to vote is blocked entirely in the 2020 election.

Last week, members of the Navajo Nation asked a federal judge in Arizona to require that the state count all mail-in ballots from voters in reservation communities that are postmarked by November 3rd, even if they are received after Election Day.

As the courts continue to address mail-in ballot concerns, the most important thing you can do is ensure your vote is counted this November. Resources are available for free online if you need more information on when, where and how to vote – and if you’re planning to vote by mail, now is the time to request your absentee ballot.

Now more than ever, Native American voices can champion hope and help shape the quality of life for tribal communities and future generations.

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National Preparedness Month: Planning Before Disaster Strikes

National Preparedness Month, occurring each September, encourages Americans to be prepared for any disasters or emergencies that may strike their homes and communities. Disaster preparedness is especially critical in impoverished Native communities, where everyday life can feel like a crisis and the disaster recovery process can be long.

September is National Preparedness Month. Make your plan today.

Many tribal communities are all too familiar with weather emergencies, from fires and floods to tornadoes and snowstorms. This, coupled with the lack of local first responders and the lack of mainstream coverage of reservation disasters, creates an imminent need for tribal communities to be ready to act when disaster strikes.

PWNA supports disaster response through immediate relief as well as training and outside resources that help tribal communities and citizens plan ahead for what to do in an emergency. Designated emergency managers are trained to mitigate situations, communicate immediate needs and work with community members to act – not react. Additionally, many volunteers complete Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations. PWNA helped train more than 330 such individuals last year alone on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, Lake Traverse and Crow Creek reservations, with support from the American Red Cross and other National VOAD partners.

Whether it’s tackling severe weather or reducing risk amid a global health pandemic, reservation communities face added barriers to emergency response. One of many basic utilities that many Americans take for granted, internet access is not as readily available or accessible within tribal communities. This digital divide adds major challenges when it comes to communicating emergency needs throughout a disaster event.

Most recently, emergency managers in our service area have been focused on securing laptops and internet hotspots to better respond to the coronavirus pandemic, access resources and stay connected with their communities. It is critical to have quick, reliable connectivity to coordinate an emergency response – especially in rural and remote areas.

As communities nationwide continue to navigate COVID-19 – and any other emergencies as they happen – PWNA remains committed to championing Native communities to confidently tackle whatever disaster comes their way.

For more information on creating your own emergency preparedness plan, visit

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Recently in Native News

Native American people and communities continue to make headlines even while COVID-19 remains a critical concern on the reservations. The following headlines from this past month represent some of the topics impacting Indigenous people and recognize individuals for accomplishments that are inspiring their communities. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest news and information.

High schools around the country are re-examining their use of Native American mascots via Chicago Tribune

  • “Nearly six years ago, Austin Allbert dressed in beaded pants, a fringed vest and a feathered headdress, and allowed his art teacher to decorate his face with ‘war paint.’ Portraying the ‘chief,’ he stood with his arms crossed in front of him, stoically staring ahead as the band played at Morris Community High School football games. Earlier this month, Allbert sat in a lawn chair in front of his former school with more than two dozen other protesters insisting the school change its mascot.”

‘Devastating’: The Census Bureau is about to severely undercount tribes via Huffington Post

  • “The U.S. Census Bureau unexpectedly announced it will end 2020 census field operations early, a decision that will disproportionately hurt Native American tribes that are already historically undercounted, hard to reach and rely on accurate census data for lifesaving federal dollars. The agency slipped the news into a press release last week: ‘We will end field data collection by Sept. 30, 2020. Self-response options will also close on that date to permit the commencement of data processing.’”

Miss Navajo Nation is a ‘glimmer of hope’ for community during pandemic via Cronkite News

  • “After winning the title of Miss Navajo Nation in September, Shaandiin Parrish immediately got to work on the cultural preservation and advocacy efforts central to the role. At times, she attended five or more events in a single day, traveling across the 27,000-square-mile reservation to speak to elementary school students and attend conferences. But in March, as COVID-19 swept through the Southwest, Parrish suddenly went from visiting elders and delivering motivational speeches to distributing food, supplies and information to Navajo families hit hard by the novel coronavirus that causes the deadly disease.”

Federal agency to reopen 53 Native American schools despite coronavirus fears via NBC News

  • “The U.S. Department of the Interior – Indian Affairs, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Education, announced last week that it would reopen ‘brick and mortar schools’ under its jurisdiction to the ‘maximum extent possible’ on Sept. 16. That will affect 53 Bureau of Indian Education schools run by the federal government across 10 states. With President Donald Trump pushing for schools to reopen for in-person learning despite the coronavirus pandemic, his administration has a direct say in the fate of some schools on Native American reservations.”

Crystal Wahpepah is clearing a path for Indigenous chefs via Berkleyside

  • “Just before the pandemic hit, Chef Crystal Wahpepah was finally seeing the fruits of her labor. As the first Native American woman to own a catering business in California, she was in demand across the Bay Area and around the country, preparing her signature feasts of beautifully plated Indigenous dishes such as buffalo blueberry stew, three sisters salad with wild red rice, and blue corn flan with hibiscus berry sauce. Wahpepah, a member of the Kickapoo [N]ation, grew up in Oakland but spent the summers with her grandparents in Oklahoma, learning to cook with traditional ingredients.”
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National Aviation Week and Native Americans in Aviation

National Aviation Week in August celebrates achievements in the world of flight, including the birthday of Orville Wright on Aug. 19, who along with his brother Wilbur, achieved the first successful flight of an aircraft in 1903. Today, we’re also celebrating several notable Native Americans in aviation.

Bessie Coleman and John Herrington

Bessie Coleman was the first person of Native American (Cherokee) and African American descent to hold a pilot’s license. Coleman was inspired by her brothers’ stories of French women pilots from The Great War. At the time, no flight schools in America accepted women so she applied to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France and earned an international pilot’s license in 1921. She also became popular for her stunt flying and air performances across Europe and the U.S. Coleman wanted to own her own plane and open her own flight school, but she died in a plane crash before that dream could be realized.

Mary Riddle, Clatsop and Quinault from Seattle, was qualified to fly solo in 1930. She earned her pilot’s license and later her commercial license but was best known as a performing parachutist. She was inspired to fly at the age of 17 when she happened to see a woman crash a plane. It was said women would never be successful pilots, but she wanted to prove them wrong and help “fill the sky with thunderbirds.”

John Herrington, Chickasaw from Oklahoma, was the first Native American to walk in space. He was designated as a naval aviator in 1985 and has logged over 3,300 flight hours in more than 30 different aircrafts. NASA selected Herrington to participate in the 16th shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2002. During his spacewalk, Herrington honored his Native heritage by carrying six eagle feathers, a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads and the Chickasaw flag. He now travels the country giving presentations about his life.

Aaron Yazzie, Navajo from Tuba City, Arizona, supported NASA’s Mars landing in 2018. He built the pressure inlet that functions as the “eyes and ears” of the InSight lander to help secure more accurate readings about the planet’s interior – a next step in NASA sending astronauts to Mars. Yazzie says the crust of Mars reminds him of the Navajo Nation and that he is learning Earth and Mars are not so different. Yazzie is currently focused on Mars 2020 to look for signs of microbial life and prepare for human exploration.

Cherise John, Navajo from Fruitland, New Mexico, is an expert in thermal cooling and turbine design for military and commercial engines. Cherise was always environmentally conscious, good at math and encouraged from a young age to reach for the stars. She studied language abroad through a Dartmouth program and later earned two master’s degrees – one from Ohio State University in environmental engineering and one from Northern Arizona University in mechanical engineering. Today, John is a lead engineer in turbo-aerodynamics for GE Aviation and a STEM advocate for Native youth.

Whether pilot, astronaut or engineer, we celebrate these Native Americans for their leadership and contributions to aviation. Want to know more? Read about early Native women aviators and U.S. Army helicopters named after tribes – a tradition that honors exceptional service and the 32 Native Americans who earned a Medal of Honor.

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Navajo Code Talkers Day: The Life and Legacy of Chester Nez

Navajo Code Talkers Day on Aug. 14th honors the veterans who encrypted their Native language to provide fast and secure phone and radio communications during World War II. Navajo Code Talkers were trained to transmit messages under intense conditions, and their unbreakable code is credited with helping the U.S. win the war.

The “original 29” Code Talkers began in 1942 and were unsung heroes until 2001 when they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. These individuals were instrumental in shaping the campaigns of the second World War and we continue to honor their legacy today. About 400 other Navajos followed the original 29 to war.

Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez

Chester Nez was the last surviving member of the original 29. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the war as part of Recruit Training Platoon 382. After graduating from boot camp in San Diego, Nez and the rest of his platoon were tasked with creating the code for secure tactical communications. While code talkers from other nations also served in World War II, the Navajo language was selected because of its complex syntax and phonology.

Nez was born in Chi Chil’tah, New Mexico in 1921. Like so many other Native American children at the time, he was sent at age 8 to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The school assigned his English name “Chester” and it was there he was recruited by the Marine Corps.

When Nez and his platoon went to Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomon Islands, they worked in teams of two to send and receive critical messages. From 1942 to 1945, Nez traveled to Bougainville, Guam, Angaur and Peleliu to assist with wartime communications. He was honorably discharged in 1945 and returned to the U.S., where he later assisted with the Korean War effort.

Nez retired from the military as a corporal and went on to study commercial arts at the University of Kansas. He then spent 25 years working as a painter for the Veterans Administration hospital in Albuquerque before retiring in New Mexico. Nez published a memoir in 2011 titled Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. In it, he recounts how he was once punished for speaking the same Native language that later helped assure victory for the U.S.

Nez passed away in 2014 at the age of 93. Today, we commemorate Chester Nez, and the rest of the Navajo Code Talkers who forever helped shape U.S. history. Learn more about the code talkers that followed from other tribes.

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Native American Undergraduate Students Awarded ‘Wes Studi AIEF Scholarship’

College students across the country are eager to begin the fall semester, whether in-person or online. For Native American students, however, attaining a postsecondary education comes with its own set of unique challenges.

The American Indian Education Fund (AIEF), a program of PWNA, helps foster education opportunities for American Indian and Alaskan Natives through scholarships, school supplies and encouragement. AIEF is one of the largest grantors of scholarships to Native Americans and invests about $1 million in education each year, including scholarships for many students who are the first generation in their families to attend college.  

This year, PWNA collaborated with legendary actor Wes Studi to grant two additional scholarships to Native American students from his home state. The Wes Studi AIEF Scholarship is intended for Native American students from Oklahoma who are attending a four-year university and pursuing a degree in the arts, business or communications.

This year’s scholarships were awarded to Hannah Westfall, a member of the Osage Nation who is studying film and media studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Kelly Kowis, a member of the Cherokee Nation who is studying business management at Northeastern State University. Both Kelly and Hannah were awarded $2,500 for the 2020-2021 school year and will also receive mentorship and support from AIEF, which can further impact their success.

Studi, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation raised in Oklahoma, has long advocated for the Native American community. In 2019, he partnered with PWNA to create a five-part PSA series on the widely held misconceptions about Native people, history and funding. Studi also initiated a birthday fundraiser on Facebook to raise the funds earmarked for these two scholarships.

“Native American youth today are the voice of future generations, and we are so proud to select Kelly and Hannah as our inaugural Wes Studi AIEF Scholarship recipients. They both aspire to heartfelt goals and while this school year may look different, we know they will remain dedicated to their studies and their communities.” – Wes Studi

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Vaccines for Healthy Animals and Reservation Communities

August is National Immunization Awareness Month, highlighting the importance of vaccinations for people to prevent serious and sometimes deadly diseases. With so much current focus on vaccines for people, animal caretakers recognize that pets are a part of the family too and their vaccines are equally important. PWNA’s Reservation Animal Rescue (RAR) program provides grants to animal welfare partners, helping them extend no-cost and low-cost vaccine services to animals of the reservations and immunize rescue animals prior to adoption and rehoming.

ASPCA shares that vaccines can be broken into two categories: “core must-haves” and “non-core.” This differs depending on the type of animal and where it lives. Must-haves for dogs are rabies, parvovirus, distemper and canine hepatitis. Must-have for cats are rabies, feline distemper, feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus. In some cases, a dog may get more than 15 vaccines and cats up to 10 vaccines in their first year of life. The price of these vaccines can add up quickly, costing anywhere from $100-$200 depending on the clinic and number of shots.

RAR grants help our animal welfare partners protect animals – and in turn communities – against preventable diseases. Nola and Chuck are serving the Omaha and Winnebago tribes in Nebraska through 12 Hills Dog Rescue. They’ve been a PWNA partner for several years, and a good portion of the RAR funding provided to them goes toward vaccinations and parasite prevention. Over one three-month period, they were able to do 41 immunizations at an average cost of about $22 per dog. That’s a lot of preventative medicine for animals waiting for their forever homes!

Unfortunately, many animals who find themselves with our RAR partners arrive with injuries and other critical health concerns. These issues must be treated before vaccines can be administered. One recent example is Phil, a six-week-old Pomeranian/Husky (Pomsky) mix. Phil was taken to 12 Hills by a Nebraska family and a veterinary assessment showed he had a severe bacterial infection in his face and feet. Two options were given: euthanasia or the long and costly road of treatment. Thankfully, they chose treatment, and Phil is now on the road to recovery!

A happy and playful Pomsky now 10 weeks old, Phil has received his first vaccinations and is ready for his forever home! According to 12 Hills, he is fine with cats and kids but not yet house-trained or neutered. Phil will weight 15-30 pounds when fully grown.

For more information on canine and feline immunizations, visit or consult with your nearest veterinary clinic.

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Despite Classroom Uncertainties, School Supplies are Critical

It’s the question on every parent’s mind – when and how is my child going back to school? The answer varies across states, communities and districts as school officials are working to navigate the safest course of action for their students. And while the immediate plan is unclear, one thing is certain: education for every child is critical.

The average cost of school supplies per child in the U.S. is $789 this year, and part of the increase is factoring in PPE for students, such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Many parents are also investing in laptops and tablets to support distance learning. Unfortunately, almost two-thirds of Native American children on the reservations are living in impoverished or low-income households and needs like these present barriers to education.

PWNA’s American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) program has provided school supplies to Pre-K through grade 12 students across the Southwest and Northern Plains for decades – as part of its annual Backpack Drive. This year is no exception and PWNA is hoping to deliver supplies to at least 15,000 Native American students.

While unemployment continues to rise across the U.S., it’s still nowhere near the unemployment rates within the communities PWNA serves (35-85%, depending on the reservation). Incomes are often restricted for Native American families and, for many, even basic school supplies are a luxury that can’t always be afforded. Not to mention the challenges to physically access school supplies given the remoteness of some reservation communities and the current travel restrictions in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

One PWNA partner and teacher, Deborah from the Northern Plains, recalls a grandmother who called a week before school started last year. She was concerned her five grandchildren could not start school on time as she could not afford their school supplies. When Deborah assured her that the children would not have to wait, thanks to the AIEF school supplies, she was so relieved.  

With support from caring donors, PWNA hopes to bring much-needed relief to families like these who so often must choose between feeding their families and shopping for back to school. To learn more and contribute to our Backpack Drive, visit

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