Recognizing Native American Heritage Month in November

By Taja Blackhorn, Department of Labor and Industries and Member of the Kahodasi People

Pictured Above: Members from four Alaskan Tribes, Photo from US Bureau of Indian Affairs

November is Native American Heritage Month

Beginning in 1990, November was designated Native American Heritage Month, a time to pay tribute of the rich history and culture of the American Indian tribes.

All the verbiage surrounding that initial recognition seemed to place Indigenous people and Indigenous culture into a past tense.  

But we are still here

November is a wonderful time to recognize, honor, and celebrate Indigenous peoples and identities past, present, and future.

In order to properly respect and honor the original inhabitants, it is important to learn about the Indigenous People whose land this is.

Because you don’t know what you don’t know

Washington state alone encompasses the traditional homelands/ancestral lands of 29 federally recognized indigenous tribes as well as many unrecognized indigenous communities.

In addition to the Indigenous peoples whose traditional homelands exist within the modern state boundaries, numerous indigenous peoples of the Americas have made Washington state their home.

Learn more about Washington State Tribes

Because you don’t know what you don’t know

  • There is no pan-Indian culture. There are many Indigenous peoples each with our own language, customs, and lifeways
  • We are still battling against of 550 years of genocide, discrimination, erasure of our languages/cultures/beliefs.
  • We are still working on decolonizing how we are seen, both through internal and external lenses. 
  • When it comes to urban Indians [from federally or non-federally recognized tribes] we often exist outside the government-to-government power structure.
  • One way to think of Indigenous identity is one is Sovereign and one is Racial/Ethnic. Both are Indigenous.

November is also National Veterans and Military Families Month

Did You Know?

  • 18.6% of the American Indian & Alaskan Native population has served in the post-9/11 period
    • and at higher percentage than veterans of other minorities at 18.6% vs. 14%.
  • There are currently 31,000 American Indian & Alaskan Natives on active duty
  • There are currently 140,000 living American Indian & Alaskan Native Veterans and 11.5% are women

During World War I:

Although Native Americans were not considered to be US Citizens until 1924, they were required to register for the draft during WW I

 6,500 Native men were drafted, and about 5,000 more enlisted, eager to carry on the warrior traditions of their tribes.

  • 10,000+ in the Army
  • 2,000+ in the Navy
  • 14 American Indian women served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

As their tradition dictated the Onondaga and Oneida Nations declared war against Germany, so they could enter battle honorably

Choctaw and Cherokee Code Talkers

The Choctaw code talkers were a group of Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma who pioneered the use of Native American languages as military code.

Photo from US Army Archives

For many years, the code talkers’ work remained classified. Then on June 18, 2002, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to recognize the important part that these Soldiers played in “performing highly successful communications operations of a unique type that greatly assisted in saving countless lives and in hastening the end of World War I and World War II.” The act further states that the code talkers operated “under some of the heaviest combat action … around the clock to provide information … such as the location of enemy troops and the number of enemy guns.”

Congress recognized the remarkableness of the code talkers’ achievements, despite societal discrimination against them. The act states that at “… a time when Indians were discouraged from practicing their native culture, a few brave men used their cultural heritage, their language, to help change the course of history.”

During World War II:

Did You Know?

An estimated 44,000 Native Americans served in the United States military during World War II

  • 21,767 in the Army
  • 1,910 in the Navy
  • 874 in the Marines
  • 121 in the Coast Guard
  • Several hundred Native American women served as Nurses

These three are members of the U.S. Marine Corps. They are [left to right] Minnie Spotted Wolf of the Blackfeet, Celia Mix, Potawatomi, and Violet Eastman, Chippewa.

Photo from US Marine Corps Archive

Navajo Code Talkers of World War II

Photo gallery 1. Collage of Navajo Code Talkers from World War II 2. Photo of last of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers. Photo from

They devised a hundred-word dictionary of military terms, including ‘‘two-star chief ’’ for major general, ‘‘eagle’’ for colonel, ‘‘turtle’’ for tank, ‘‘sewing machine’’ for machine gun, and ‘‘pregnant airplane’’ for bomber. The main beneficiary of the code talkers’ unique ability was the Fourth Infantry Division, which assigned two Comanche soldiers to each regiment with others at division headquarters. Subsequently other code talkers joined the army program from the Chippewa, Fox, Hopi, Oneida, and Sac tribes.

The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers who developed the code, Chester Nez, died on June 4, 2014. Three of the last nine Navajo code talkers used in the military died in 2019: Alfred K. Newman, died on January 13, 2019, at the age of 94. On May 10, 2019, Fleming Begaye Sr., died at the age of 97.

Keeping Traditions Alive During a Pandemic

Social Distance Powwow

In the time of COVID-19 traveling & performing during Pow Wow Season is impossible and dangerous. So, the Indigenous Community came up with a way share and participate through Facebook:

Social Distance Pow Wow

Roc Your Mocs

Traditional Native Moccasins. Tribe unspecified. Photo from

First established in 2011, the worldwide Rock Your Mocs events calls for American Indians and Alaska Natives to wear their moccasins on November 15 as part of Native American Heritage Month. Watch the tag #RockYourMocs on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see how people celebrate across the country.

Taja Blackhorn, a member of the Kahosadi People from southern Oregon, has engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion outreach and education for more than 30 years, and has recently added Native Land Acknowledgements and Lunch and Learns for state agencies to her efforts.

Today is Indigenous People’s Day

By Rachel Friederich, ICSEW Communications Chair

Today, Oct. 12 is Indigenous People’s Day. holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. It is celebrated across the United States on the second Monday in October, and is an official city and state holiday in various localities.

The notion of an Indigenous Peoples Day took root at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations in 1977. South Dakota was the first state to recognize the day in 1989, and the cities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California, followed. California and Tennessee observe Native American Day in September, according to a recent article in USA today.

Though some groups argue that Columbus Day celebrates Italian American heritage, many say the holiday glorifies an exploration that led to the genocide of native peoples and paved the way for slavery.

Though Washington State is not on the list of states that officially celebrate it, many local cities and municipalities recognize the day as Indigenous People’s Day.

The Interagency Committee of State Employed Women celebrates diversity and stands with our Native communities and Natives employed by the state of Washington as allies. ICSEW has recently added tribal land acknowledgements at the start of its meetings and is actively recruiting a pool of volunteers who can rotate in to fulfil this role. There has also been some talk with the Office of Financial Management to add a Native Community Business Resource Group to its growing number of BRGs. The OFM coordinates formation of these groups, and the ICSEW collaborates with these groups to promote intersectionality and anti-racism in state government through its partnerships subcommittee. We often cross promote their events, trainings and news on our blog.

Virtual Events

Because of the pandemic, in-person events related to Indigenous people’s day have been curtailed. However, many groups and universities are hosting virtual ones.

Here are a few:

RELATED CONTENT: Commentary: Tribal Land Acknowledgements

Preserving Sacred Traditions During a Pandemic

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, state agencies have had to adapt and figure out new ways of conducting business with minimal contact. With a few modifications, one contract employee at a women’s prison in Belfair has been able to continue culturally-informed programming for incarcerated members of the Native community. Red about JoySky Caudill’s work with Native women. Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Department of Corrections’ website. #WomenWhoMakeADifference

selective focus photo of brown dreamcatcher
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on


by Rachel Friederich, ICSEW Communications Chair

BELFAIR, WASHINGTON—JoiSky Caudill ignites a bundle of cedar and sweet grass inside an abalone shell at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW). With an eagle feather, she brushes the smoke around the incarcerated women’s faces, hands and feet. As she moves between the women, they sing.

The smudging ceremony is one that goes back centuries in Native communities. In many Native cultures, it’s a means of purification and cleansing.

Caudill has kept this tribal ceremony, along with several others, alive with a few modifications as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to postpone or cancel correctional enrichment programs statewide.

Her continuous work has earned Caudill a ‘Mother of the Year’ Award from White Bison, Inc. White Bison is a non-profit charitable organization that offers sobriety, recovery, addictions prevention and healing resources to American Indian/Alaska Native people.

“It’s an honor to be nominated for this award,” Caudill said. “When I found out, I was in tears. To be seen like that in somebody else’s eyes is a big boon and I’m still kind of shocked about it. You get a renewed energy to do this kind of work because it’s not just yourself that got seen. The women in this program got seen.

Caudill is a contract employee who leads Native programs at Washington state correctional facilities. She began overseeing tribal programs for incarcerated women 10 years ago at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). In 2013, she began overseeing tribal programs at Mission Creek. Before that, she was a chaplain.

Caudill didn’t always know she wanted to work at a correctional facility. She began volunteering at WCCW after a close friend and mentor passed away. Caudill was filled with grief. Another friend, who worked at WCCW, urged her to start volunteering there. Caudill found making a difference in the incarcerated women’s lives was making a difference in her own life.

“I spent a lot of time listening to the women and I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, this is where I want to be,’” Caudill said. “I knew this is what the Creator had in mind for me. In my heart, I know I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.”

Working through a pandemic

women sitting in chairs in a classroom wearing masks
Joi Sky Caudill, Center, stands with members of the Red Willow at Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Judith Gerren

During a normal week, Caudill leads cultural activities with a group of about two dozen incarcerated Native women, known as the Red Willow. Wednesday afternoons and evenings, the women gather in a room to make beaded jewelry and medallions to give away to their families and guests at the facility’s annual pow-wow. Twice a week, the women hold a ceremony inside the on-site sweat lodge, which includes traditional prayers, songs and storytelling. And once a week, Caudill leads a Wellbriety circle. ‘Wellbriety’ is a culturally based grassroots substance abuse recovery movement program specifically for Native community members.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Department of Corrections has taken steps to slow virus spread among correctional facilities, including temporary suspension of visitation and large events like powwows. Correctional facilities have also temporarily suspended and/or modified recreational and classroom activities that normally involve group gatherings.

In the Red Willow, ceremonies like the sweat lodge have been split into two shorter sessions, to allow for smaller groups. The ‘sweat’ portion has also been temporarily suspended. But talking circles, smudging, prayer, song and dance still convene on sweat lodge grounds. All participants must also wear a mask.

Efforts to lower recidivism

Talking circles are a major part of all Red Willow ceremonies. During the talking circle, participants share common experiences as Native women.

Some conversations explore historical trauma. Historical trauma is cumulative emotional, physical and spiritual pain over one’s lifetime, Caudill said. Historical trauma can pass between generations in Native families. It can result from historic systemic racial inequalities in society and can lead to things like substance abuse and higher likelihood of incarceration.

In Washington’s correctional facilities, approximately 5.9%, or 1,011 incarcerated individuals (pdf) are American Indian or Alaska Native. According to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, American Indian and Alaska Natives make up only 1.9% of the state’s population. As of March 2020, the state’s recidivism rate among American Indian and Alaska Natives state is 44.5%.

And the rate hasn’t fluctuated much. According to the Department of Corrections’ Engagement and Outreach Director, Jeremy Barclay, the rate has remained between 41% and 45% for the past three years. But he’s confident the department has taken steps to lower that rate.

For example, the department has a tribal liaison, Nancy Dufraine, to work with tribes statewide to develop policies, agreements and programs that directly affect tribes. The position promotes effective communication between the department and tribal governments. The liaison also coordinates training among employees in cultural competency for providing services to tribal governments and tribal members. For the past year, the department also hired a second temporary liaison to work on projects and further the department’s work.

Dufraine says historical trauma, chronic poverty, health disparities and lack of access to behavioral health services are all factors that increase likelihood of a Native person becoming incarcerated. But having culturally informed programming can play a role in their success after incarceration.

“Access to this type of programming, including religious expression, education, training and health services while incarcerated with seamless transition upon reentry can have a large impact on recidivism as I see it,” Dufraine said. “These opportunities, especially religious expression, help identify paths to self-awareness and reborn cultural identity that builds strength and endurance to succeed.”

A place to heal

portait of JoySky Caudill
JoySky Caudill. Photo courtesy JoySku Caudill

Caudill is of mixed European descent and shares ancestry with the ancient Mayans of Mesoamerica. She says programs like Wellbriety are an example of the good that can come from incorporating culture in correctional programs. She says it’s not uncommon for incarcerated Natives to have lost their cultural connections by the time they are sentenced to incarceration.

“When one gets lost in their pain and suffering with drugs and alcohol, it’s the strength of the drugs and alcohol that gets in the way,” Caudill said. “We call it the mind-changer of drugs and alcohol. They get caught up in their addictions and don’t get involved in their culture.”

The program creates a safe place to talk with their peers, which often reawakens their ancestral ties.

“They join the Red Willow, and they start to remember their culture and traditions,” Caudill said. “They say, ‘I remember I used to do that. I used to dance and sing. I have to do that again.’ They start remembering what their culture is and what they used to do.

“They begin to dance again and we practice those things. We tell them to show us and pretty soon, they’re the ones teaching the other women. It’s so exciting to see them brighten up and be able to remember these things.”

Another topic the Red Willow have begun to discuss more often in the talking circles is the pandemic. While the women feel safe with each other, they worry about their families in their home communities.

Native communities are facing disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infection and death as a result of an insufficient Indian Health Services Budget, delays in federal relief funds and social detriments of health that put them at an elevated risk, according to Medpage Today, an accredited medical news service that provides continuing education to health care professionals.

“This pandemic can be a triggering time and can generate new fears,” Caudill said. “They may have loved ones who are sick.”

Caudill comforts them by creating a secure environment to express their feelings. She says she and the Red Willow are there to listen without judgement. And the women may arrange to speak with Caudill one-on-one, if it makes them more comfortable.

“Our Native American ceremonies have really brought me comfort in being so far away from my family,” said a member of the Red Willow, who is Apache and Cherokee. “Our spiritual ceremonies during this pandemic have been what I call ‘my dates with the Creator,’ being able to go out and smudge and pray and be in that safe zone has always given me that strength to where I’ve been able to have that peace of mind.”

Having a positive impact on the women’s lives is what pushes Caudill to continue her work at Mission Creek.

“That’s one reason I’ve done my very best to make sure I’m here — to allow these brothers and sisters to communicate their fears without any judgement.”

About Mission Creek Corrections Center: Mission Creek Corrections Center is an all-female adult minimum custody prison located in Mason County, Washington. It has been continuously operated since 2005 and has a capacity of 321.

First Native American Woman Appointed to Washington State Supreme Court

portrait for Raquel Montoya-Lewis
Raquel-Montoya Lewis, the first Native American woman to be appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court

OLYMPIA–Gov. Jay Inslee helped usher in a historic day for the Washington State Supreme Court when he appointed Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis as the first Native American justice Dec. 4 in Olympia.

Montoya-Lewis has more than 20 years of judicial experience, including five on the Whatcom County Superior Court. She spent years working with tribal communities in Washington and elsewhere, and is uniquely familiar with the challenges that tribal and rural communities face. She also worked on issues to protect children from exploitation, and received the Children’s Advocacy Center Community Leadership Award in 2018.

“Because Judge Montoya-Lewis is Native American, many will focus on the historic nature of this appointment,” Inslee said. “And it’s entirely appropriate to do so. But I want the record to show that Judge Montoya-Lewis is the kind of exceptional judge I want serving on the highest court in our state because she is the best person for the job.”

Read the rest of the story on the Governor’s Medium Page.

WA’s Ecology Director on Native Knowledge and Fighting for Forgotten Communities

Maia Bellon
Washington State Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon was recently interviewed on being Native American and how growing up in the Pacific Northwest shaped her worldview and ignited a passion for working with communities to solve environmental problems.

Editor’s Note: This Article Originally Appeared on CrossCut.

By Hannah Weinberger, CrossCut

Maia Bellon grew up exploring Washington’s woods and coastlines. As Washington’s Department of Ecology director, she’s putting environmental justice front and center.

I grew up below the poverty line, and [outdoor recreation] was our vacation. My parents had us outside all the time — we were swimming, trout fishing in lakes and fly-fishing in rivers. My dad would do things like grab a bunch of  sea kelp and seaweed, wrap himself with it and run after us on the beach pretending to be a sea monster.

I loved romping around in the woods. My father had me convinced as a little kid that some of the moss growing off of trees was Sasquatch hair, so I was the self-appointed Sasquatch tracker. It was wonderful; I loved it. We did a lot of hiking, climbing and camping, while living in Washington, Montana and Northern California on the Fort Bidwell Paiute Indian Reservation. It was all very rural and isolated.

I am part white, and I am part Native. When I was going to a very small rural high school, and half of the school population was native and half was from a non-Indian ranching community, my brother and I were the only two mixed-race children. The bus was divided, and this was 1983! The non-Indian children sat up front and the Native children sat in the back. By the time we moved to Tumwater a few years later, that bus was integrated. Continue reading