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The Circle of Life

"November is Native American Heritage Month. What started at the turn of the century as an effort to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S., has resulted in a whole month being designated for that purpose.

One of the very proponents of an American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, who was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” and for three years they adopted such a day. In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kans., formally approved a plan concerning American Indian Day. It directed its president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, to call upon the country to observe such a day. Coolidge issued a proclamation on Sept. 28, 1915, which declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day and contained the first formal appeal for recognition of Indians as citizens.

The year before this proclamation was issued, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians. On December 14, 1915, he presented the endorsements of 24 state governments at the White House. There is no record, however, of such a national day being proclaimed.

The first American Indian Day in a state was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York. Several states celebrate the fourth Friday in September. In Illinois, for example, legislators enacted such a day in 1919. Presently, several states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but it continues to be a day we observe without any recognition as a national legal holiday.

In 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations, under variants on the name (including “Native American Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) have been issued each year since 1994"

The following is an excerpt from “Keepers of Life” by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac; published by Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO



Everything in life is a circle. Everything is alive, the animals, the birds, the plants of the Earth and the plants of the sea, the water, the air and the stones and everything must be respected. All things are part of the Earth, which gives us everything we need. When we take from the Earth, we must give back in return. The Medicine Circle is the source of our strength.

So the Wampanoag people explain the way they have been instructed by the Creator. One of the heroes of the Wampanoag is a giant whose name is Maushop. Some say he lived there on the narrow land now called Cape Cod even before the Wampanoag arrived. One of his friends was a giant frog.

Maushop’s life was a good one. He swam in the waters of Popponesset Bay. He made great fires on the sand to cook whales and other sea creatures, and when he emptied the sand into the sea from his great moccasins he made the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

The Wampanoag became friends of Maushop. In fact, he was so good to them that they became lazy.

Then Kehtean, the Great Spirit, spoke to Maushop. “It is good that you care for your younger brothers, but it is not right that you do everything for them. If they do not care for themselves, how can they care for the rest of Creation? Their circle will not be strong.”

“It is true,” said Maushop. Then he said goodbye to the People of First Light. As he swam away, Kehtean, the Creator, transformed him into a great white whale. Kehtean took pity on the giant frog and turned him into a huge stone, which still sits at Gay Head, looking out to sea. That stone reminds the Wampanoag that Kehtean cares for all things.

The Wampanoag soon found that when they worked for themselves, everything they needed was there. One of those ways of survival which makes use of all that is around them - Earth, the plants, the animals and the water - is called by them Appanaug. It is a word which means “seafood cooking,” and it is done to honor someone or to mark the change of the seasons.

With thanks in their hearts and with care, they wade into the shallow water and collect some of the Rock People, old round stones which have been smoothed by the tide. Then they make a circle on the land and dig a shallow round hole, and the shape of the stone and the shape of the hole remind the wampanoag of the Medicine Circle of all life.

Dry wood is gathered. No living trees are used. When the next morning comes, they gather quahog clams from the bottom of the bay and sickissuog clams from the shore when the tide is low. Then they gather great loads of seaweed called rockweed. When the fire for the clambake has burned down to ashed and the Rock People are glowing, the rockweed is placed on top of the stones. Then the clams, along with lobsters and corn are piled on top of the rockweed and covered with more seaweed. The Appanaug is part of the great Medicine Circle of life. So, as the food cooks, the people say prayers of thanksgiving to remember all the gifts they have been given. It is the way it was done long ago and is still done that way today.

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