Every November, the United States pays tribute to the vibrant and diverse cultures of its Indigenous peoples. Native American Heritage Month was officially established in 1990. It is a time to recognize and honor the history, heritage, and contributions of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and several Island communities.
Here are three Indigenous role models who are making a difference.
Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is renowned for her multifaceted talents as a poet and musician. Harjo's poetry collection, titled In Mad Love and War, received the American Book Award in 1990. In 2019, she became the first Native American to be appointed US Poet Laureate. Even more impressive, Harjo held the position for three consecutive years.
The former US Poet Laureate is a big advocate for the appreciation and preservation of Native American culture and art. "I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am," Harjo explains. "To all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth."
The talented artist also plays the saxophone and has released several albums incorporating spoken word poetry and music.
Jason Momoa was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Native Hawaiian father and a mother of German, Irish, and Native American descent. Momoa got his acting break in 1999 when he was cast as Jason Loane in the popular television series Baywatch Hawaii, However, it was his iconic portrayal of Khal Drogo in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones that gained him international fame in 2011.
In 2016, Momoa was cast as Arthur Curry, also known as Aquaman, in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). His depiction of the aquatic superhero in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, garnered much attention. It also set the stage for Aquaman. Released in 2018, the film was a massive success, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide.
Off-screen, Momoa is an avid advocate for ocean conservation. He has led several initiatives to reduce plastic pollution. In 2022, Momoa became the official spokesperson for "Life Below Water" — an ocean conservation initiative launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
"For me, the ocean is an ancient teacher, a guide, and a muse," he says. "It is also existential. Without a healthy ocean, life on our planet as we know it would not exist."
John Herrington is the nation's first Native American astronaut. He was born in Wetumka, Oklahoma, a small town in the heart of the Chickasaw Nation. After graduating from the University of Colorado, he joined the United States Navy and became a Naval Aviator.
Herrington's journey to space began in 1996 when NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate. After years of rigorous training, he was designated as a mission specialist astronaut. Herrington's first trip to the International Space Station (ISS) came on November 23, 2002, as part of the Space Shuttle Endeavour crew. In a nod to his heritage, Herrington carried with him a Chickasaw Nation flag, a traditional flute, and a feather. During the 13-day mission, Herrington made further history by becoming the first Native American to conduct a spacewalk.
Herrington retired from NASA in 2005. He now spends much of his free time encouraging Native American youth to pursue careers in science and engineering.
Resources: Wikipedia.org, NASA.gov, CNN.com, History.com