'We are people of the present': AICI leader on what it means to honor Native American Heritage Month

Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity to dispel myth and recognize today's Indigenous communities.
The most triumphant moments of 2016
Posted at 1:18 PM, Nov 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-10 17:07:02-05

INDIANAPOLIS — November is Native American Heritage Month. It's time to honor the work and sacrifice Indigenous people have made for the United States and celebrate the rich culture and traditions of Native people.

At the turn of the calendar, most Americans think of Thanksgiving. A time often felt as communal and warm.

Carolina Castoreno, the executive director of the American Indian Center of Indiana (AICI), says the feelings Indigenous communities have around this time of year are "a bit of a mixed bag."

"I think that more people are aware now — it's still an issue that we have to educate on — the original Thanksgiving idea is a myth. So it can be traumatic for Indigenous people to share that space with an event that has taken on its own legend but is not based on actual historical fact," Castoreno told WRTV. "It directly is correlated to the genocide that our people have faced. So it's a little difficult."

As a citizen of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, Castoreno shares it's a tricky line to balance, celebrating the month dedicated to her heritage while also fighting Indigenous erasure. But, however difficult, Castoreno believes it's a great time to stay connected and share the truth about current Native culture.

The most triumphant moments of 2016
CANNON BALL, ND - DECEMBER 04: Native American and other activists celebrate after learning an easement had been denied for the Dakota Access Pipeline at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 4, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The US Army Corps of Engineers announced today that it will not grant an easement to the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under a lake on the Sioux Tribes Standing Rock reservation, ending a months-long standoff. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

"It is an opportunity to talk about that honestly and authentically and correct the narrative, but also engage people about the issues that we have faced historically, and currently, and how that is connected," Castoreno said.

AICI was founded in 1992 as a way to promote the empowerment of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawai'ians in Indiana, according to the organization's website. It provides health outreach programs, workforce development, cultural events, educational services and more.

When Castoreno became executive director of AICI in 2017, she began raising the nonprofit's profile. Her team started to collaborate with other Black, Indigenous, People of Color organizations in the state and increased funding to create more programs for the community.

"It's great that we have this month dedicated to be able to spread awareness, but we do want people to know that the American Indian Center is here all year round," Castoreno said.

AICI recently moved to a new building on the city's near northeast side, located at 1145 East 22nd Street, which offers more space than their previous office. The group said to keep an eye out on their social media for the announcement of AICI's Recovery Cafes, community meals, talking circles, holiday events, fundraisers, and more.

Through these events, Castoreno looks forward to further educating the community that there is no "just one way to be Native American."

"We're not a monolith. Just like any group, we have our own traditions based on geography, based on language, and the areas we come from in the country, on the continent," she explained. "It's really important to not homogenize us, and, again, to ask the right questions of the right people, making sure that Native people have agency."

Carolina Castoreno, the executive director of the American Indian Center of Indiana, says that November is a time of mixed emotions for Indigenous people. However, it's a poignant time to educate and spread awareness to non-Indigenous people about current Native American culture — not just the past.

Castoreno offered ways that non-Indigenous people could better educate and honor Native communities. She says that first and foremost, it is vital to center Indigenous voices.

"It's just like with any community; you would want somebody from that community at the table and having their voice heard. As opposed to what people say about our history, without being a part of it," she clarified.

Second, when talking about Indigenous history, Castoreno says to learn the land that you occupy. Here in Indianapolis, we are on the Myaamiaki territory, the traditional land of the Miami.

Understanding Native Americans of the present, not just the past, is also essential for celebrating the Indigenous community.

"I think a lot of people when they talk about Indigenous people they still talk about us in past tense. So they want to learn the history, but they don't necessarily go the extra mile to understand what our community looks like today," Castoreno said.

For example, because Indiana is a total urban Indian population — meaning there are no reservations — most of Indiana's current Native population is not from a tribal nation that was once here.

Castoreno said a big thing she wished more non-Indigenous people knew about was the concept of sovereignty. As someone from a southwestern border tribe, Castoreno comes from a nation that is from land in Texas and Mexico. Prior to colonization, Castoreno says, Natives did not have borders.

"I think people think that we're just part of a tribe. But ... these are sovereign nations. And so understanding what that means, and also understanding what indigeneity means," Castoreno said. "Indigenous people, Native Americans, are actually people from the tip of Alaska to the tip of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego in Chile, so it's all of the Americas."

The easiest way for the community to dispel myths and educate themselves, Castorneo says, is to recognize that "we are people of the present."

"It's not just our historical traditions that matter, but it's also the contemporary issues we face and how we are surviving under the system and how we are maintaining, and even revitalizing, our own cultures and languages depending on where we live."

NEXT: Ways to honor and celebrate Native American Heritage Month

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.