Native American Heritage Month — In their own words: Rachel Heaton

Rachel Heaton holds up the Muckleshoot Tribe flag on top of Mount Rainier. Photo courtesy of Heaton.
Rachel Heaton holds up the Muckleshoot Tribe flag on top of Mount Rainier. Heaton is co-founder of Mazaska Talks, an indigenous-led organization that offers tools to help others divest from fossil fuels. She's also a culture educator with the Muckleshoot Tribe. Credit: Rachel Heaton



For over 30 years, Native American Heritage Month has been federally recognized. Northwest Public Broadcasting reporters are interviewing Indigenous people from throughout the region to learn what they think about the month and what they want people to understand about their culture and who they are. Lauren Gallup spoke with Rachel Heaton, co-founder of Mazaska Talks, an Indigenous-led organization that offers tools to help others divest from fossil fuels.

“My name is Rachel Heaton, and I am a Muckleshoot tribal member, and I’m a descendant of the Duwamish people. I also share some ancestry with some European folks,” Heaton said.

Heaton is a culture educator for the Muckleshoot Tribe. As she discussed Native American Heritage Month, Heaton picked berries and leaves from hawthorn branches students from the tribe had gathered earlier. The tribe will store and use these for teas throughout the year.

“It’ll be used throughout the year for community, for any kind of teachings that we have,” Heaton said. “We do a number of trainings and stuff. This is one way that we introduce plants and medicines to the community.”

Through her work, Heaton often shares her knowledge about land stewardship and giving land back to the Native communities that know how to take care of the land. For her, being a steward of the land is a year-round practice.

“When we talk about us being stewards of the land, it’s because our people have lived off of the land since time immemorial, all over Turtle Island, Indigenous people all over the world,” Heaton said. “Before Indigenous people were removed from lands, every one of those groups of people have had relationships with the land.

“We’re ultimately protecting all human life, when we talk about drinking clean water and breathing clean air. Every act that we’re doing that’s protecting Mother Earth is benefiting other human beings, non-Natives, Natives, everybody. So I think understanding that relationship and how important we are to the biodiversities of the world, that right there in itself to me, should make people want to have those relationships, and to do what we all can to just be better stewards of the land,” Heaton said.

Land stewardship and its importance for future generations is a part of Heaton’s daily life. She said taking a single month to celebrate Native American culture can feel tokenizing. 

“It’s not just ‘identify with it for the month,’ and then it just goes away,” Heaton said. “It’s our livelihood, and, as stewards of this land, there’s always ongoing things throughout every day of our lives, not just the month of November.”

Heaton said, to her, this month is just another month – her identity doesn’t go away when the recognition ends. She said Native American Heritage Month shouldn’t be limited to 30 days a year. Instead, learning about Native American culture should take place every day to acknowledge the importance of Native people since time immemorial, she said. 

“Honestly, it’s just a month, because being Native, you don’t identify, during any time of the year. That’s just who we are,” Heaton said. “I do think that because of colonized holidays like Thanksgiving, this is kind of the time that a lot of non-Natives choose to have these conversations about Native people.

“I think tying a month to specific races is such a small-minded way to really educate ourselves about the world that we live in. I feel like that’s kind of the tokenized part of it,” Heaton said. “Whereas I think removing these months and focusing on relationships should be the importance of what we’re doing. But in the meantime, while this is our platform, I think that we do use them as a way to educate, to have these conversations, because I think sometimes these conversations are very uncomfortable for people to hear. But I also think it’s also an opportunity for growth.”