Celebrating Native American Indian Heritage Month

November 13, 2015
Lena Thompson, MPH
Research Associate
National American Indian and Alaska Native ATTC

November marks the celebration of Native American Indian Heritage Month, a time to honor the many achievements and contributions made by a group of people who are rising above grief and trauma. Within the American Indian culture are many different practices, legends, and people to celebrate. While flipping through American Indian Myths and Legends, a book of American Indian stories selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, I came across a Cherokee tale, reported by James Mooney in the 1890s. The tale is of how Grandmother Spider stole the sun.

In the story, the world was dark; animals and people could not see.  Fox told the others that people on the other side of the world had light but they did not share it with others. Possum said that he would be happy to steal a little of the sun so that those on his side of the world could also see. He had a big bushy tail that he would wrap the sun into and he would be able to come away, unnoticed. But when Possum tried this, the sun was so hot that it burned all of the fur off of his tail. He was discovered and the people on the other side of the world took their light back. This is how possums got their hairless tails. Next, Buzzard offered to steal the sun. He decided to put it on his head to fly it back to his side of the world, but when he did, the sun burned all of the feathers off of his head and he was also discovered. This is how buzzards got their bare heads. Finally, Grandmother Spider decided to give it a try. She built a thick-walled pot out of clay. Then she spun a web across the world and crept over, unnoticed. She snatched a piece of the sun, put it in her clay pot, and rushed home to share the light on her side of the world. Grandmother Spider brought sun, fire, and pottery-making to the people (Erdoes, Ortiz, 1984).

Native Americans used stories like this one to explain how things come to be. These stories are valuable because they tell a truth about humans who are searching for answers and explanations, as all humans do. As behavioral health professionals, it is important for us to acknowledge and celebrate this way of knowing. Spirituality has been associated with recovery from substance use disorders in Native Americans, yet much of the research that has been published on Native American substance use disorder treatment does not assess spirituality before, during, and after treatment (Greenfield, Hallgreen, Venner et al., 2015). As professionals who specialize in technology transfer, we are charged with the responsibility to make more than recommendations. We must encourage programs that incorporate spirituality into their programs to engage in evaluation. Since each tribe has different spiritual beliefs and practices, there may not be one perfect model for the rest to follow, but we can build a foundation of promising programs and practices from which others can learn.

For many years, American Indian and Alaska Native communities have been invisible to the dominant culture; their cultures were considered savage, resulting in a total lack of understanding of their very lengthy cultural heritage, ceremonies, and medical practices. During this month, I hope that Native Americans can take this opportunity to stand, visible to the rest of us, in their light. But like small piece of the sun Grandmother Spider brought to us, let’s encourage that light to grow and continue to shine with us throughout the year.

Our guest blogger:

Lena Thompson, MPH
After graduating from Drake University with a BA in International Relations, Lena worked in Iowa City as a Community Support Staff, assisting women with cognitive disabilities reach goals and live healthy lifestyles. She was able to blend her interests in human rights, global health, and community building as a Master of Public Health student at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. While pursuing her MPH, Lena worked on various health communications campaigns, including a Safe Teen Driving social media campaign and a video campaign in Lima, Peru. She earned her MPH in August 2014, joining the National American Indian and Alaska Native ATTC in November 2014. As a Research Associate at the Center, Lena assists with curriculum development and technical assistance projects.

Erdoes, R., & Ortiz, A. (1984). Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun. In American Indian myths and legends (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 154-155). New York, New York: Pantheon Books.

Greenfield, B., Hallgren, K., Venner, K., Hagler, K., Simmons, J., Sheche, J., . . . Lupee, D. (2015). Cultural adaptation, psychometric properties, and outcomes of the Native American Spirituality Scale. Psychological Services, 12(2), 123-133. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ser0000019 

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