SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Each year during the month of November, communities across the country celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, histories, and contributions of Indigenous people in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

The month-long event is also a time to bring awareness and conversation to the issues that our Indigenous communities still face today. European colonization of North America has had a devastating effect on the Native American population and centuries later, Indigenous communities still experience some of those impacts.

“Some of the stories that we’ve been taught in elementary schools and throughout our K-12 curriculum have a specific kind of narrative and slant. There are some great new history books that try and take that Indigenous perspective such as ‘Indigenous People’s History of the United States.’ It shows some of the other perspectives on that and gives us a better idea of what has happened throughout our history,” said James Singer, Co-Founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters.

Singer and Sahar Khadjenoury, Program Coordinator for Utah Navajo COVID Relief joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen on the CW30 News at 7 p.m. for an “In Focus” discussion on the topics that uniquely impact and involve our Indigenous communities.

“Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity for the non-Indigenous to consider the land in which they reside on. When people ask me, ‘What are you going to do about Thanksgiving? How do you feel about that? Should I cancel that?'” said Khadjenoury. “I’ll say, ‘Whoa whoa whoa. Before we do anything drastic, how about we consider opening up your Thanksgiving dinner with a consversation or a dialogue about land acknowledgment?'”

When asked about some of the challenges, barriers, and difficulties that still exist, Khadjenoury pointed out that Navajo Nation is roughly the size of West Virginia, but only has 11 grocery stores and less than 200 officers.

“Let’s just talk about some human necessities such as infrastructure, electricity, and running water. We still have so many Indigenous people living without these necessities. Living in rural communities also poses another issue such as access to internet. I know it sounds like a luxury, but it actually isn’t. A lot of things we need such as filling out applications, receiving updates, getting the news are oftentimes only available online,” said Khadjenoury.

A controversial topic this past year has been Native American mascotry, with the NFL team Washington Redskins electing to change its 87-year mascot. Most recently on the local level, Bountiful High was in the spotlight for its decades-long mascot of the Braves. The principal is expected to make an announcement Monday on whether the mascot will be changed after months of public input.

“Native Americans are not a monolith. We have lots of different opinions. From my take and how I look at it is that this is something that is kind of smaller on the scale of racism, but at the institutional level. If we’re looking at constitutional rights, equality for everyone … when we see something like this that’s built into our school systems, this is called institutional racism. So despite the good intentions of individuals, the institutional part is actually what creates this discrimination,” said Singer.

He went on to say, “The mascot then becomes an image. It dehumanizes by taking away our individuality, our differences that there are 574 different Indigenous tribes in the United States. But if you see a mascot, all you see is one prototype. We call that the ‘Hollywood tribe’ because most of that has come from movies and the media over the history of film.”

With the younger generation of Native Americans, Khajenoury said there is a concern about the preservation of language.

“I feel like there’s a race right now to learn and grow as much as we can within our Indigenous tongues. We have a lot of schools offering Indigenous language classes. The reason why we’re at this point is because we had residential schools that had taken previous generations and basically stripped them of culture by taking away their language,” she said. “When you lose language, you lose stories, songs, and more. The elders who still do speak, there are a library of knowledge.”

Singer talked about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic and how the political jurisdictions have impeded investigators’ abilities to pursue the perpetrators of these crimes. Utah and Salt Lake City both place in the Top 10 states and cities for the highest number of MMIW cases in the country.

“If there are crimes committed by an [non-member] on the reservation, the laws are very specific in that tribes can’t do anything about that if the [non-member] leaves the boundaries of the reservation,” he said.

But aside from the challenges and barriers that still exist, Singer said there have been a lot of successes and progress for the Native American community.

Politically, voters in San Juan County were no longer disenfranchised with two Native Americans who are now on the three-seat county commission. This year was the second election cycle that a Native American ran for Congress in Utah. Singer ran for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District in 2018 and Darren Parry ran for the 1st in the 2020 election.

Singer also mentioned there are two Indigenous congresswomen who were re-elected this election cycle. One being Rep. Deb Haaland from New Mexico, who is being considered for the Department of the Interior which also consists of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Something to think about. Having the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the same kind of department as wildlife, natural resources, and national parks is a little bit dehumanizing. So I wonder if having a Native American in the director’s seat would help change some of those interpretations and representations,” said Singer.

With the presidential election, Arizona and Wisconsin — two states that are typically red, turned blue after seeing an increased voter turnout among Native American communities. Singer said the Hopi tribe saw about double the turnout from about 36 to 60 percent.

In regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, Navajo Nation went from being in the top 3 hot spot areas in the spring to one of the lowest transmission areas now in the fall. President Jonathan Nez credited the progress to the weekend lockdowns and curfews along with public service campaigns for mask-wearing, social distancing, and good hygiene.

“I think this can be summed with the Navajo word, K’é which means kinship, taking care of one another. If someone needs a mask, then we call them out. Supplying food and PPE, which is what we’ve spent the last year doing,” said Khadjenoury.