Celebrating Indigenous History and Learning from the Past: National Indigenous History Month

An indigenous woman places her hands onto the bark of a cedar tree

June is a significant month in Canada. National Indigenous History Month is a period set aside for recognition, celebration, and education. This time is dedicated to honouring the cultures, histories, and enduring contributions of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples. We also commemorate National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21st, offering an enhanced opportunity to appreciate the diverse Indigenous communities nationwide.

This post originates from the ancestral, unceded, and occupied lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. As an uninvited settler in the colonially-named Vancouver, I openly acknowledge that my private psychotherapy practice operates on stolen territory. Recognizing these Indigenous nations’ profound connection with this land marks the beginning of a journey, not the end. My commitment extends beyond words, striving for reconciliation through tangible actions like reparations and land restoration.

Recognizing Indigenous Diversity

The term “Indigenous peoples” encompasses numerous distinct communities, each with their own unique histories, languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs. It’s vital to recognize and celebrate the diversity within these communities, including those who identify as Two Spirit, transgender, nonbinary, and other gender-diverse identities. In many Indigenous cultures, this diversity is not just accepted but cherished and honoured.

Symbols are significant in Indigenous communities, carrying profound meanings and teachings. Consider the arrangement of four colours—black, white, yellow, and red—that signify concepts such as the Four Directions, the four seasons, and the sacred path of both the sun and human beings. These colours’ arrangement can vary among Tribes, reflecting the rich diversity inherent within Indigenous cultures.

Learning from the Past, Shaping the Future

National Indigenous History Month serves as a reminder that celebration and education should go hand in hand. To truly honour Indigenous peoples, we must learn their histories and experiences to understand the destructive legacy of colonization and work toward decolonization.

In 1945, Jules Sioui and chiefs from across Turtle Island (North America) first declared an Indian Day, paving the way for the current celebrations. As settlers, we must do more than mere land acknowledgement. We must consciously confront the discomfort of the harms caused by white supremacy and colonization and actively participate in decolonization practices.

A Journey of Allyship

Becoming an ally is not an overnight transformation; it’s a continuous journey of understanding, empathy, and action. To truly support Indigenous communities and foster solidarity, one must be willing to learn and engage actively. Here are some steps you can take to embark on or deepen your journey:

  • Educate Yourself About Indigenous Peoples: Knowledge is the foundation of empathy and action. To become a more informed ally, you should endeavour to learn about the Indigenous Peoples whose lands you occupy. Here’s how:
    • Land Acknowledgement: Begin by learning whose traditional territories you live or work on. Websites like Native-Land.ca can help you determine which Indigenous Peoples’ territories you reside in. From there, you can start researching the unique histories and cultures of those Indigenous Peoples.
    • Study Indigenous History: Dive into Indigenous history in Canada, understanding the rich tapestry of pre-colonial cultures and societies, the destructive impact of colonialism and forced assimilation efforts, and the struggles and resilience of Indigenous Peoples in the modern era. Make a conscious effort to counter the often white-centric narratives of mainstream history by seeking out Indigenous sources and perspectives.
    • Understand Current Indigenous Issues: Stay informed about current events and issues affecting Indigenous Peoples. This could involve following Indigenous news outlets and organizations, understanding the implications of ongoing land disputes, engaging with the impact of systemic racism on Indigenous communities, or learning about the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
    • Learn about Indigenous Cultures and Contributions: Indigenous Peoples have made and continue to significantly contribute to various fields, including art, science, philosophy, politics, and environmental conservation. Delve into the diverse cultures, traditions, and accomplishments of Indigenous Peoples.
    • Recognize Historical and Ongoing Injustices: Acknowledge the painful aspects of history, including residential schools, the ’60s Scoop, forced sterilizations, and other forms of physical and cultural genocide. Recognize that Indigenous Peoples face injustices today, from discrimination and racism to socioeconomic disadvantages and threats to their lands and ways of life.
  • Read Books and Watch Videos on Indigenous Topics: Engaging with narratives and stories directly from Indigenous authors and filmmakers offers a way to immerse oneself in diverse Indigenous perspectives. These resources can provide powerful insights into Indigenous histories, experiences, and realities:


    • “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America” by Thomas King provides a crucial understanding of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and settlers in North America. King, an esteemed Indigenous author, confronts stereotypes and presents Indigenous history in an accessible and thought-provoking way.
    • “Green Grass, Running Water” is also by Thomas King: A creative work of fiction that weaves contemporary Indigenous realities with traditional stories and humour.
    • “Halfbreed” by Maria Campbell: This autobiography details the author’s experience as a Métis woman in Canada and offers readers a poignant look into the impacts of racism, poverty, and colonization.
    • “Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City” by Tanya Talaga: This book investigates the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students in Thunder Bay, Ontario, revealing systemic racism and neglect.
    • “21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality” by Bob Joseph: An essential guide to understanding the legal document that has profoundly shaped Indigenous lives in Canada.
  • Listen to Indigenous Voices: Actively seeking out and listening to Indigenous voices is a profound act of respect and acknowledgment. By tuning into podcasts, radio programs, and speeches that provide Indigenous perspectives, we foster a deeper understanding of Indigenous experiences and wisdom.

    Podcasts and Radio Programs

    • “Unreserved” with Rosanna Deerchild: This CBC Radio program shares the stories, music, and culture of Indigenous Canada.
    • “The Henceforward” is a podcast that considers the relationships between Indigenous Peoples and Black Peoples on Turtle Island (the term many Indigenous Peoples use to refer to North America).
    • “Secret Life of Canada” highlights Canada’s untold and under-told history, including many Indigenous stories and perspectives.
    • “Warrior Life” by Dr. Pam Palmater: This podcast delves into issues facing Indigenous peoples from an Indigenous perspective.

      Indigenous Voices to Know

      • Six Indigenous Artists You Need to Know in 2023: This article by CBC Music’s Andrea Warner spotlights the Indigenous artists making waves in the music scene. It’s an excellent resource for those interested in learning about Indigenous culture through music.
      • Meet the participants of Voices of Youth Indigenous Leaders 2023: The Senate of Canada’s Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples program profiles young Indigenous leaders making a difference in their communities and beyond.
      • 15 Indigenous People to Know in Canada: This Elle Canada article features inspiring Indigenous individuals forging paths in various fields from politics to entertainment.
      • Meet Eight Indigenous leaders bringing their wisdom to Davos 2023: The World Economic Forum article includes profiles of influential Indigenous leaders, such as Canadian Jocelyn Formsma of the Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario, Canada.
  • Invest in Education: One of the most impactful ways to deepen your understanding of Indigenous peoples is through formal education. Many educational institutions have recently developed courses dedicated to Indigenous studies, providing a structured exploration of Indigenous histories, cultures, and contemporary issues. Two noteworthy options include:
    • Carleton’s Kinàmàgawin Indigenous Learning Certificate: This comprehensive program provides a nuanced understanding of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, emphasizing Indigenous knowledge systems, issues, and methodologies. You will study Indigenous histories and explore contemporary issues faced by Indigenous communities. The program also explores the implications of settler colonialism, the importance of land, and the meaning of allyship.
    • University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada Course: This free, massive open online course (MOOC) offers an overview of Indigenous histories and contemporary issues in Canada. It explores key issues facing Indigenous Peoples today from a historical and critical perspective, highlighting national and local Indigenous-settler relations.
  • Familiarize Yourself with Key Reports and Findings: Understanding the systemic issues Indigenous peoples face is vital to informed allyship. Several crucial documents outline the rights of Indigenous peoples and provide actionable steps toward reconciliation. Here are some you should explore:
    • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP): This international instrument sets out the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education, and other issues. It emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.
    • Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: 94 Calls to Action: This report results from a multi-year commission into the tragic legacy of residential schools in Canada. It outlines 94 specific actions that various sectors of society can take to promote truth, reconciliation, and healing. These Calls to Action touch upon several areas such as child welfare, education, health, and justice.
    • National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Reports: The Centre curates a collection of reports related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate, including the history and legacy of Canada’s Residential School System. These resources provide an important historical context for the ongoing challenges faced by Indigenous communities.
    • Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: This report represents a national inquiry into the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people in Canada. It highlights the underlying historical, social, economic, institutional, and cultural factors contributing to the ongoing crisis.

Allyship is not a label to be claimed but a continuous process that involves intentionality, learning, self-reflection, and action. It demands an investment in understanding the histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples whose lands you occupy and acknowledging the historical and ongoing injustices they face. This process entails engaging with Indigenous literature and films, listening to Indigenous voices through podcasts and speeches, enrolling in educational courses focused on Indigenous studies, and familiarizing yourself with key documents like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: 94 Calls to Action. While not exhaustive, these steps serve as a solid starting point for anyone committed to the journey of allyship with Indigenous peoples.

Working Together

National Indigenous History Month serves as a beacon in our collective journey towards reconciliation, illuminating our path and reminding us of the importance of continuous learning and allyship. This month is not merely a perfunctory nod to history; it’s a vivid canvas that brings to life the rich tapestry of Indigenous cultures, heritage, and resilience. It’s a call to acknowledge, respect, and celebrate the invaluable contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples.

When we recognize Indigenous History Month, we do more than just commemorate the past; we commit ourselves to a future where Indigenous communities are included, respected, and honoured for their unique cultures and enduring resilience. This commitment involves every decision we make and every conversation we have. It requires us to break away from colonial mentalities, question our biases, and actively work towards building a more inclusive, respectful, and knowledgeable society.

Indeed, National Indigenous History Month is an opportunity for collective growth, a chance to understand, learn from, and celebrate Indigenous histories and cultures. This isn’t merely an annual event but a springboard for lasting action and change. We’re urged to use this time to expand our knowledge, challenge our prejudices, and embrace the diversity and vibrancy of Indigenous communities.

Approach this month with humility and respect. Embrace it as a stepping stone in your journey of learning and allyship. Allow Indigenous wisdom to guide, inform, and enrich your understanding of this land’s true custodians. And as we continue to move forward, let us not forget that every step we take is on Indigenous lands, every piece of knowledge we acquire is a part of Indigenous wisdom, and every stride towards progress brings us closer to a future of reconciliation and shared understanding.

As settlers, we must recognize that we are guests on these lands and honour and respect the Indigenous Peoples who have stewarded these lands for time immemorial. This recognition and our shared humanity bind us to strive toward justice, equality, and respect for all. So, as we commemorate National Indigenous History Month, remember that our actions today will shape tomorrow’s narrative. Together, we can create a future honouring the past, celebrating the present, and welcoming a better, more inclusive tomorrow.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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