Google honours Native American History Month

During the month of Indigenous recognition in the United States, the tech company is offering themes for the web and storytelling features through Google Assistant
A collection of the many background themes of Indigenous art being offered by Google this month. (Google/various artists)

In the United States, November is Native American History Month. This month of recognition is very similar to National Indigenous History Month in Canada, which happens every June.

It is all about celebrating Indigenous traditions, ancestry, and culture. There are events all month, including online discussions and showcases for Indigenous art, film, and storytelling.

One company that is helping to expose the country to more Indigenous culture is Google. This is a pretty big deal. The tech company is not only one of the wealthiest in the world, its web browser is also the main way that many of us learn about, well, anything. There is a reason that the phrase 'Google It' is modern slang for the act of discovering information about a topic.

Simply put, Google can reach a lot of people.

But it would be one thing if Google was just attaching its name to the month and saying they support it. Instead, they are using their platforms—the Google search site, the Chrome browser, and their Google Assistant home devices—to creatively showcase Indigenous creators and voices.

Doodles and themes

A recent Google Doodle showed stickball, an Indigenous sport. (Google)

One of the ways they are doing this is by having Indigenous art across their browsers. Google Chrome is offering a wide variety of themes (backgrounds) that have been commissioned from five Native American artists.

One of the leaders of the project at Google is Blair Huffman, who is himself a member of the Cherokee Nation. On a Google blog, he wrote:

As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I celebrate this month by taking time to reflect and express gratitude for my ancestors, the resilience of my tribe and other Indigenous people, and future generations carrying our tribal traditions forward.

We also commissioned five Native American artists to create a collection of themes for Chromebooks and Chrome browser. This collection has a special meaning to me because it showcases important traditions and reminds me of home. Richard D. York’s piece “ᎤᎧᏖᎾ (Uktena, or Horned Serpent)” in particular brings me back to my childhood listening to the stories of Uktena and other tales from my elders.

This piece represents Uktena, a creature in Navajo storytelling. (Richard York/Google)

There is also art that is available for those who don't use Chrome products. The Google Doodle is the name for the way that the word Google on their search website is creatively drawn out to celebrate different events or holidays. On November 1, art showcased the Indigenous sport of stickball, and also included images of smudging, a key ritual in many Indigenous nations across the continent.

Listen to a story

Constellation Mix by Noah Lee. (Noah Lee/Google)

Artwork is such an important part of any culture. But often it means even more if you understand the stories and histories behind that art. This is perhaps especially true in Indigenous cultures as they have very strong oral knowledge traditions. This means that important information was not written down, but instead passed on through storytelling by elders to younger generations.

Storytelling is important. And this month, Google has set up a way to bring a little of that storytelling to everyone.

For all of November, Google Assistant devices are set up to respond to prompts like "Happy Native American Heritage Month”, "Tell me a human story", or “Give me a fact about Native American Heritage". If you say these phrases, the device will answer back with one of "a collection of historical facts and stories from the Native American community."

These are told by an Indigenous person with the hope of passing on knowledge to others. It is a modern way to continue the oral traditions that have existed for thousands of years on the American continent.

Let's leave with one such moment. These are the words of Noah Lee, a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation who lives in Portland, Oregon, and who made the browser theme called Constellation Mix. (That's it, just above this section.)

In Diné folklore, the ‘Holy People’ are deities that created the constellations and the impatient coyote, a chaotic trickster, scattered the stars into a mess. In this theme, the milky way reflects a pathway from earth to heaven.

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