PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — For many, the day after Thanksgiving is a day to unwind, reflect, and re-heat leftovers. Though, this day also marks another important holiday: Native American Heritage Day.

On this day, we honor and celebrate those who were here before us.

Drafted into law in 2008, the Friday after Thanksgiving was designated as a time to celebrate Indigenous peoples, the diverse cultures and communities of which they represent, their tenacity, and numerous contributions.

“There are a lot of mixed stories about how Thanksgiving came to be, and a lot of that isn’t pretty history,” said Robert Kentta, cultural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. “So, any attention we can bring to the celebration of the survival of culture and history through all that, is important.”

KOIN 6 News reached out to several leaders within local tribal communities, to hear their unique perspectives on this holiday and what it means for them and the communities they represent.

“It’s important to get a sense of place when you live somewhere,” Kentta continued. “To know the history of that land, and of the Indigenous people of that place. It builds a deeper understanding of the issues they continue to face under the affects of the colonization that happened here.”

All of the interviewed leaders said most members of their communities do not formally observe the holiday.

“For people in our community, Native American Heritage Day is every day,” explained Glendon Smith, Secretary Treasurer of the Warm Springs Tribal Council.

Smith said within the multi-tribal community of the Warm Springs Reservation, it is commonplace to celebrate traditional customs and practices year-round.

He told KOIN 6 News, he sees the holiday as an opportunity to share his culture, educate others, and help bridge the gap between Native and non-Native communities.

“There’s been a lot of historical injustices against Native people, but we try not to focus on that,” Smith stated. “We focus instead on our culture, our traditions, our songs, our first-foods, and our way of life.”

“We need to be more open to educating people, ” Smith added. “It’s a matter of respect. People need to respect who we are, our identity, and what we believe in. But it’s a mutual thing, not just between Native people, but across all races.”

For Smith, this mutual respect includes an acknowledgement of tribal traditional hunting, fishing, and harvesting customs, which often don’t align with State policies or regularly go overlooked by non-Native peoples.

While Willamette Falls Trust Associate Director of Tribal Affairs and Engagement Gerard Rodriguez believes Native American Heritage Day is an opportunity to raise awareness for non-Native people, he told KOIN 6 News that doesn’t mean the holiday is without significant value for Tribal communities.

“Despite the fact that not many people within our communities seem to recognize these days, I believe the celebrations are very important,” Rodriguez explained. “They create the opportunity for a bridge to be built, for everyone to focus on that and recognize the need for self-education.”

According to Rodriguez, understanding tribal trials, histories, and cultures is crucial to strengthening partnerships between Native and non-Native people.

A partnership, Rodriguez said will help advance issues that benefit all communities, such as, traditional stewardship of land, restoration and protection of water and sacred sites, fighting the climate crisis, and uplifting community-lead projects in a way that is culturally responsive.

“For 400-plus years of colonization, there’s a parallel story from Indigenous perspectives,” continued Rodriguez. “These acknowledgements are important to build pride, and the opportunity for our youth to learn and carry on culture. These things do matter, and they matter most when we can continue them beyond one month or one day.”