An American Indian View of Thanksgiving
Meg Singer, Navajo, Shares her thoughts and experiences.
Thanksgiving–the holiday to give thanks, the day of being thankful. Steeped in American tradition, Thanksgiving is celebrated a myriad of ways. Some celebrate by gorging themselves on food and watching football. Others view it as a good time to prepare for the Christmas season. And some people use it as a time to get together with friends and family. No matter how you celebrate, Thanksgiving is part of the American founder narrative and serves as homage to the “First Thanksgiving”, and the relationship between the Indians and Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts. You know the story:
A group of religiously persecuted people made their way across the ocean to the Promised Land. The Pilgrims were caught unprepared for the harsh winter. Nearing starvation, the friendly Indians & Pilgrims had a peaceful, cross-cultural exchange resulting in a feast where Pilgrim and Indian sat side-by-side dining on turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving honors the sacrifice those Indians made so that the Pilgrims could establish America.
Most likely, this is the story you heard at school or within your family. I know it’s what I was taught. My earliest recollections of Thanksgiving were the activities we did at school. I remember cutting out construction paper feathers and pasting them on a headband which we would then wear and bang on make-shift drums that were really old Quaker Oats containers. The PTA president would bring in turkey sugar cookies, or some sort of Fall treat. As the only Native American in my school, I would get bombarded of inquiries into how my Native lifestyle differed from theirs. I was asked what I ate, if I had a bow and arrow, and if I had a horse. And in true oral tradition, I would tell my peers elaborative lies stories that I was a great tracker & hunter, that I could speak to birds, and that I was an Indian princess who could hear voices on the wind. I knew that this wasn’t really what my tribe, or any other Indian I had known did, but this was what my peers wanted to hear and I felt that out of everyone, I should know what Indians do.
In all reality, the First Thanksgiving was far from the idyllic story we so want it to be. The Pilgrims were Puritans, religious zealots fleeing tyrannical oppression from their country. The Pilgrims believed that they could create a society that would be “a city on a hill”; an example to others of Christian values and work ethic. Ironically, the Puritans became as intolerant as the tyrants they were fleeing. Their contempt for the “heathen Indians” dominated their interactions with the local tribe, the Wampanoag. As time went on, Wampanoag/Pilgrim relations deteriorated and diplomacy was exchanged for colonialism, and most of the Wampanoag population was wiped out by disease, murdered or sold into slavery by the Pilgrims. Years of fighting between the two fractions ensued until the Wampanoag defeat in the King Philip’s War, which resulted in their displacement and loss of ancestral lands.
Thanksgiving has always been a strange concept for me. I’ve always wondered why I was taught false information in school, why a mythicized version of American history was taken as fact, and why no one seemed to care. Ignorance is the most damaging trait of our society. Ignorance creates apathy for circumstances that desperately need to be discussed. Earlier in November, a high school in Alabama made a football banner that read, “Hey Indians, Get ready to leave in a Trail of Tears, Round 2”. The banner was a symbol of the ignorance these students had of the forced removal of the Cherokee band of Indians in 1830, The Trail of Tears. The students were completely apathetic to the plight of Native Americans, not a flicker of concern. Later on, their principle made apologies and used it as a teaching moment. Nevertheless, how wonderful it would have been if the students were taught this significant event in history, think what heartache and pain would have been spared if not for a little education. As such, as parents and educators, we are not doing the future leaders of tomorrow any favors by reducing the story of the “First Thanksgiving”.
The lack of historical accuracy and the perpetuation of false ideas of Indigenous peoples make Thanksgiving a wonderful opportunity for activism and education. Parents, educators, etc. should teach their children and students, a global, age-appropriate, unbiased, factual history. Here are some ideas to make your Thanksgiving a little better:
1. Learn about food indigenous to the Americas: Potatoes, corn, squash, tomatoes, pumpkin, turkey and the cacao bean, to name a few. Talk to your kids about organic produce, gardening, or the environment. Visit a local organic farm or farmer’s market. Ask your kids/students what they would have thought at seeing these foods for the first time. Have them write their experiences down as a creative writing project.
2. Watch the PBS documentary “We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower”. Directed, narrated, written and portrayed by Native actors. American Experience went to great lengths in portraying the events of the First Thanksgiving through the lens of Native tribes and people. http://www.hulu.com/watch/196936
3. Those with very young children, fall-themed crafts can be appropriate. Please try to omit pasting feathers on a headband, Quaker Oat drums, or this:
I make it a point to reference the specific tribe involved in the First Thanksgiving. Often, when it comes to Thanksgiving, we think of the Indians with war paint, headdresses, buckskin, and teepees. The dehumanization of Indigenous peoples is linked to the active colonization they have been subjected to, beginning with the First Thanksgiving. It is easy to have power over a people if you take away all identifiers and group them into stereotyped representation. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States; each tribe has specific languages, cultures, religions, and forms of governance. Making pan-Indian representations of Indians and Pilgrims reduces various tribes and people to a caricature.
4. Visit official websites of tribes in your state or area. In Utah, there are five tribes, the Navajo, Hopi, Goshute, Ute, and Paiute. The Utah Division of Indian Affairs provides free curriculum for students K-12. Materials are available through the county and city libraries. http://www.utahindians.org/Curriculum/index.php
You may be surprised by the amount of activism, research, and dialogue these tribes can provide. They even have their own version of “We Shall Remain” which is curriculum sanctioned by the Governor’s Office. If this curriculum is not being taught in your child’s school please take it up with your district.
5. Here are more ideas from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. http://nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/thanksgiving_poster.pdf
At my house, Thanksgiving has always been a time of thanks giving. My mom, the best cook in the word, makes the turkey, stuffing, salads, and desserts. It is a time when our busy, eclectic family comes together for wholesome activities and intellectual conversations. I look at Thanksgiving as a time I can give thanks for what I have, what I’ve learned, and what I can do.
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