For many, rather than a celebration of peace and shared prosperity among Native Americans and pilgrims, Thanksgiving represents the dark shadow of genocide and the resilience of the natives.
Each tribe and individual may have a different way of spending Thanksgiving. Some will gather with their families and share a meal, exchange prayers and stories from the rich oral history of the Indians. Others will fast all day.
For Tribalman Dennis W. Zotigh, Thanksgiving is “a day of mourning.” Zotigh is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Winter Clan, and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both of Kiowas’ top warlords.
“For most natives, Thanksgiving is not a party,” Zotigh says. “Natives, especially in the New England area, remember this genocide attempt as a factual part of their history and are commemorated every year during the modern Thanksgiving.”
Zotigh is an author and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC
The United American Indians in New England meet every year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill to mourn. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget the sacrifices and tragedies of its native people.
Tribal citizen Julie Garreau also describes Thanksgiving as “a day of mourning” for her people. Garreau lives in the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, and runs the Cheyenne River Youth Project.
This year, Julie does not celebrate Thanksgiving and instead hosts an event on Native American Heritage Day called “Thanks for Kids,” which celebrates native children. Kids at the Cheyenne River Reservation can enjoy homemade tacos and take part in fun activities.
In the past, she has made native dishes like buffalo roast and pumpkin soup to honor the original story with foods that indigenous peoples would have eaten.
Garreau has also worked with children in the Cheyenne River Youth Project to make wasna, a traditional Plains Indian food made from a mixture of dried meat (usually buffalo), dried berries (usually chokecherries) and fat (usually kidney fat or bone marrow)) , which is bumped together with a mortar and pestle.
Other years they have held classes where they have taught native children to sew moccasins.
Joshua Arce, president and CEO of Partnership With Native Americans, still attends Thanksgiving, but sees the holiday as a way to reunite with family and celebrate the original culture. He is part of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a federally recognized tribe in Kansas.
“I had a very mixed household because my mother’s side of the family is Native American and my father’s side is Mexican American. It was always about being with the family,” Arce says. “It’s about being able to celebrate the resilience of our families in many ways.”
Along with a Thanksgiving turkey, Arce’s family will eat wild rice stews. Wild rice was a staple of the Potawatomi tribe in the Great Lakes region.
The Thanksgiving celebration is also strongly centered around prayer, which includes thanking and remembering lost relatives and praying for a good fall and winter, especially to stay warm through the winter and have needs met, Arce says.
Like Garreau and Zotigh, Arce called Thanksgiving “a day of sorrow” that creates multigenerational and intergenerational trauma. He associates it with Eurocentric terms that came to dominate indigenous peoples, such as “colonization,” “discovery,” and “manifest destiny.”
What can we do to respect the natives?
Garreau says the best thing people can do is get educated and learn the true story of Thanksgiving.
Garreau points out that Native Americans in South Dakota have long sought to change school curricula to more accurately reflect Native American history, but have repeatedly been shot down by state lawmakers.
Garreau and Arce all described learning about Thanksgiving as a harmonious celebration involving mutual cooperation and respect. They experienced a rude awakening in adulthood as they learned the true story and understood the dynamics between the colonizers and the colonized.
“Thanksgiving, like the history of America’s origins, omits painful truths about the history of our nation,” Zotigh says. “Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time belittles our common history and teaches half a truth.”
But Zotigh and Arce recognize that the description of Thanksgiving’s true story may be too much for children given the violence and harsh realities of colonization.
National Geographic’s depiction of the real Thanksgiving: Tells the true story of Thanksgiving
“While I agree that elementary school children celebrating the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school,” says Zotigh. .
As part of his work on Partnership With Native Americans, Arce has also compiled material explaining the true story behind Thanksgiving. The group has made lesson plans to discuss the topic sensitively with children from kindergarten to third grade. It includes age-appropriate lessons on indigenous culture and heritage, culturally appropriate craftsmanship, book recommendations, and writing.
Arce also points out that less than 1% of charitable donations support Indigenous causes and recommend donating to Indigenous causes on Giving Tuesday.
While each of these tribesmen spends their Thanksgiving differently, they all take the time to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and thank their ancestors.
Thanking has always been a part of Native American Americans’ everyday lives, Zotigh says.
You can follow author Michelle Shen @ michelle_shen10 on Twitter.
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