30 Stories for 30 Days of Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month

Published on November 01, 2021 by Beatrice Alvarez

We are celebrating Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month by devoting more time to listening to the many creative people of Native American and Alaska Native heritage who carry on Indigenous traditions in a modern world. Each day in November, we are highlighting an individual or group who are telling their cultural stories via myriad different ways, from fashion to film to cuisine. Join us as we explore an Indigenous story each day this month.

*We will update this article throughout the month with new voices and films available to stream here and on the PBS Video app.

1. Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee)

Multimedia artist Bunky Echo-Hawk ignites conversations around topics like environmentalism and Naive rights. He makes art showing that Indigenous culture is not only a thing of the past, while sharing his family and Pawnee traditions for future generations. Hear from him as he explains his motivations and ambitions in this episode of American Masters' In The Making.

2. Joy Harjo (Muskogee)

Poet Joy Harjo is serving her third term as U.S. Poet Laureate. Her words speak to the soul of our nation. You can hear Harjo read her poetry in this interview from New Mexico PBS show Colores!

4. Daniel Golding (Quechan)

5. N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa)

Pulitzer Prize-winner and prolific writer N. Scott Momaday was a formative voice in the time literary critics refer to as the Native American Renaissance. Learn about his life, from growing up with Kiowa storytelling traditions to the art he continues to make American Masters film N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear.

6. Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree)

Cree artist Buffy Sainte-Marie is often remembered around here for her time on Sesame Street, when she was featured along with her infant son from 1975 to 1981. Sainte-Marie was a successful singer and songwriter before that and her career has continued since. Hear her discuss her life's work, and what it was like to find out she was blacklisted and surveilled by the U.S. government in this interview with PBS39 program Articulate.

7. Charles "Boots" Kennedye (Kiowa)

Filmmaker Charles "Boots" Kennedye has focused his storytelling career highlighting Native American and Indigenous experiences. His latest project is focused on modern life for Alaska Native families. You can watch the series on Vision Maker Media's YouTube channel this month.

8. Sequoyah (Cherokee)

Before Sequoyah, the Cherokee language was spoken, but not written. By all accounts, he was a Renaissance man who took it upon himself to document the language 200 years ago, creating the Cherokee Syllabary. That was in addition to his many other accomplishments as a soldier, artist, and statesman. The documentary Searching For Sequoyah explores his legendary life and the mysteries of his death.

9. Maria Tallchief (Osage)

The first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet was the magnetic ballerina Maria Tallchief. She was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma and her father was Osage. Tallchief was widely known on stage for her Firebird role, which was created for her by famed choreographer George Ballanchine. Off-stage, she advocated for Native American rights and spoke out against discrimination.

10. Bethany Yellowtail (Crown, North Cheyenne)

Fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail gave audiences insight into her creative process in the Independent Lens alter-Native series. Her design talent serves to increase Indigenous representation in an industry that has often profited from cultural appropriation.

11. Sandy White Hawk (Sincagu Lakota)

Sandy White Hawk is a survivor of the Indian Adoption Era, when Native American children were taken from their families by the government and placed in white homes. She tells her personal story of reconnecting with the Lakota culture she was cut off from, and going on to advocate for the thousands of others who were separated from their heritage. Hear her story in the America ReFramed film Blood Memory.

12. Jeremy Dennis (Shinnecock)

Photographer Jeremy Dennis explores Indigenous identity, culture, and assimilation through his art work. He also helps other artists to create their own explorations of culture and identity by making space for them in his family home on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Long Island, New York. Learn more about how he is preserving history by making contemporary art in the film The First Twenty: Ma's House.

13. Louise Herne (Mohawk)

The storied site of the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY is on land belonging to the Haudenosaunee. Six nations joined together to form the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora, and they are a matriarchal society. The women's suffrage movement drew heavily from the these matriarchs, yet they have been largely written out of the history books. See the women's rights movement anew, through the perspective of Mohawk Clan Mother Louise Herne in the PBS Short Film Festival film Without a Whisper.

14. Julian Brave NoiseCat (Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen)

Julian Brave NoiseCat is a journalist and political strategist. His work centers Indigenous perspectives across disciplines. Most recently, he worked to increase representation of Native American voices in government, specifically at the Department of the Interior, an agency whose past leaders included some who sought to destroy Native cultures. In this clip from NewsHour he discusses just how meaningful it is to have Native American and Indigenous people in leadership roles.

15. The Sacred Cypher (Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Navajo)

Albuquerque, New Mexico-based dance crew The Sacred Cypher demonstrates the close connection between Indigenous and hip hop cultures with each performance. Indigenous dancers from the many different tribes in the area come together to tell their stories through the art of dance. Learn more about The Sacred Cypher from this episode of KQED's If Cities Could Dance.

16. Zitkála-Šá (Yankton Sioux)

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin was born in 1876 on the Yankston Reservation, but later renamed herself Zitkála-Šá which means "red bird" in the Lakota language. She saw the deeply negative impact of the strict assimilation measures at the core of Indian boarding schools and wrote about her time as a teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in a series of exposés published in the Atlantic Monthly. She continued to advocate for Native American rights while working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and writing the first American Indian opera, based on healing practices of many tribes across the Great Plains. Learn more about her life's work in the American Masters digital portrait featured in the Unladylike2020 series.

17. Tommy Orange (Cheyenne, Arpaho)

Tommy Orange's debut novel "There There" explored identity and myth through its American Indian characters. Readers and critics alike loved the book, which connects historical events like the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island to today's generations of Native youths. Hear Orange read from his exceptional work in this University Place episode from PBS Wisconsin.

18. Jeffrey Palmer (Kiowa)

Artist and filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer takes great care to represent Indigenous experiences in all their diversity and cultural adaptations. He recalls listening to his Kiowa family and elders tell stories in his upbringing and carries on that storytelling in his own work. His documentary profile of Kiowa artist and writer N. Scott Momaday for American Masters displays all facets of a compelling story: lush soundscapes, connections to the land, and artistic visuals.

19. Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha)

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska in 1865. Encouraged to pursue higher education and driven to help her community, she earned a medical degree and became a physician. She returned home, to the reservation, and treated everyone who needed help. Dr. La Flesche saw patients in her home and made house calls, arriving on foot or via horse and buggy. She also achieved her lifelong goal of founding a hospital on the Omaha Reservation in 1913 and left a legacy of culturally competent medical care in her community.

20. Billy Luther (Hopi, Navajo, Laguna Pueblo)

Billy Luther’s award-winning documentaries share Native American stories with wider audiences. Luther explores and honors his own Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo heritage through filmmaking. His documentaries, whether it’s Miss Navajo (2007) or Alter-NATIVE: Kitchen (2019), tell the contemporary Native American stories that he didn’t see in film and on television as a kid. You can stream his work inAlter-NATIVE and Alter-NATIVE: Kitchen via Independent Lens.

21. Ben-Alex Dupris (Miniconjou Lakota)

Ben-Alex Dupris directed the 2020 PBS Short Film Festival entry “Sweetheart Dancers,” in which he explored the respect and acceptance of Two-Spirit people within Indigenous communities. Dupris uses the story of a dance competition to highlight the damaging effects of assimilation efforts that stripped Native Americans of their cultural traditions and belief systems. More recently, Dupris created one of eight profiles of emerging cultural icons as part of American Masters’ In The Making collection. You can watch Sweetheart Dancers on Kanopy and stream his American Masters short film on Pawnee artist Bunky Echo-Hawk .

22. Brian Yazzie (Navajo, Diné)

23. Stevie Salas (Apache)

Rock guitarist Stevie Salas set out to make a documentary about his rock and roll heroes. Salas produced Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, a film that explores the Indigenous roots of the foundational sounds of American music genres like rock, pop, jazz, and blues. The story is told through artists who themselves were influenced by the sounds of Native American musical heroes, ensuring music history records the contributions of Indigenous artists. You can watch Rumble, which first aired on Independent Lens in 2019, on the PBS app until the end of November.

24. Jordan Dresser (Northern Arapaho)

Jordan Dresser, film producer and current Chairman of the Northern Arapaho tribe, is dedicated to uplifting Native American stories and contemporary art in different forms. He wrote about the present-day battle over tribal lands and how a land developer or tourist might see the same place so very differently than Indigenous people who care for the land because it represents home and heritage as it related to the Independent Lens film Conscience Point. Dresser co-produced a film about modern Indigenous artists from the Wind River Reservation: The Art of Home. He also helped bring another important story to light: Home From School: The Children of Carlisle, which documents the healing process 130 years after Native American boys died at an Indian boarding school.

25. Princess Daazrhaii Johnson (Neets'aii Gwich'in)

Princess Daazrhaii Johnson is able to share her Neets-aii Gwich’in heritage through the eyes of a child. Her stories, and those of many other Alaska Native people, are reflected in the PBS Kids series Molly of Denali. In an interview with PBS Hawaii’s Long Story Short, Johnson discusses her upbringing and how parts of her family history, like loss of certain Native traditions due to forced assimilation, were difficult to face. She also notes how her family instilled in her a deep connection to storytelling and the significance of maintaining Indigenous traditions.

26. Sarah Ortegon (Shoshone, Northern Arapaho)

Sarah Ortegon recalls feeling fully herself on weekends as a child when she visited with family on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Now a multimedia artist, Indigenous stories are central to her art. At times, she discovers Shoshone and Arapaho connections in her work that she previously had not known about, helping her learn more about modern ties to her ancestral past. You can learn more about her and other Native American artists in The Art of Home: A Wind River Story.

27. Phillip Kilirunguq Blanchett (Inuit Yup'ik)

Phillip Kilirunguq Blanchett co-founded the band Pamyua with his brother in Anchorage, Alaska. He describes their sound as “Inuit Soul” and it blends different elements of traditional Yup’ik and R&B music. Pamyua’s music is a clear representation of Blanchett and his bandmates and their interwoven cultures. Blanchett is featured in this episode of Indie Alaska, available to stream now on the PBS app.

28. Julianna Brannum (Comanche)

Julianna Brannum has been making documentaries and films for over 15 years. Her work includes American Experience’s We Shall Remain, Native America, and the recent Independent Lens film Conscience Point, a documentary on the Shinnecock Nation in what is now known as Long Island, NY. Her 2014 film LaDonna Harris: Indian 101 was a personal journey, as the Native activist and civil rights leader was also Brannum’s great aunt. The documentary was exemplary of Brannum’s mission to tell more modern-day, positive Native American stories. While it is important to understand the tragic events in this country’s history of state-sponsored displacement and cultural harm, it is just as critical to make space for all the contemporary Indigenous experiences of strength and excellence.

29. Chris Eyre (Cheyenne, Arpaho)

30. N. Bruce Duthu (Houma)