Native American Voices on Thanksgiving
Written by Lynn Nichols // Illustrated by Asha McClendon
Anti-colonialist, Indigenous perspectives about a complex and painful history
In November, most Americans prioritize two days over all others: Election Day and Thanksgiving Day. Pop culture often doesn’t recognize that November is also Native American Heritage Month — and the Friday after Thanksgiving, November 27 this year, is Native American Heritage Day. Not only are these observances rarely given the visibility that they deserve, but Native American Heritage Day can be bittersweet for Indigenous people in the United States. When former President Barack Obama signed the official observance into law, Chickasaw Nation citizen Brian Perry questioned the implications of the day’s placement on the calendar: “Why must we take a backseat to Thanksgiving? Why not the day before Thanksgiving?”
Dennis W. Zotigh, who is a Kiowa, San Juan Pueblo and Santee Dakota writer, emphasizes that the spiritual and ethical principles behind Thanksgiving date back long before any colonists arrived in North America. In his in-depth 2013 essay from the National Museum of the American Indian blog, Zotigh writes that for “the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the creator.” Seneca and Cherokee author Terra Trevor shares a similar perspective in her 2017 editorial for HuffPost: “For Native Peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but always.” However, Thanksgiving as a federally recognized U.S. holiday, celebrated in November, can hold a negative connotation for Native American communities. Indigenous activist organization Native Hope shares in an online essay that “for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest.” The holiday as it is celebrated today evokes a painful history of colonialism in North America, and presents a false narrative which ignores past injustices.
Pop culture and most public school curriculum trace Thanksgiving’s origins in America back to a peaceful celebration in 1621, where the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people feasted together. This paints an idealized image of a cooperative relationship between colonial settlers and Indigenous people in early American history. Historian James Baker traces the mostly untrue origin story back to the education system of the early 20th century. According to Baker’s book, “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday,” the narrative only cemented itself in the collective national consciousness by 1920 as an aspect of rising American nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. This means that the story of the first Thanksgiving is relatively new. Furthermore, there are many reasons to reexamine it.
History shows that white European colonists caused upheaval, brought disease and inflicted outright genocide for Native Americans. As a 2018 National Geographic article explains, the colonists of the early 1600s brought a deadly epidemic to the Wampanoag people, which made it possible for the Pilgrims to land at Plymouth Rock in the first place. Before the 1621 gathering ever took place, the Pilgrims stole food and supplies from the Native Americans around them, even robbing Wampanoag graves.
The popular narrative of the first Thanksgiving reflects a symbolic peace between groups, but that peace did not hold. In a Time magazine story in 2018, Sean Sherman writes that less than two decades after the famous peace gathering in 1637, Puritan colonists killed an entire Pequot village then held a Thanksgiving dinner to “celebrate their barbaric victory.” For centuries since, colonists and their successors in the United States government have continued to marginalize, betray and massacre Indigenous people. Some of these atrocities are well-known, like the murder and theft during the Trail of Tears set in motion by Andrew Jackson’s administration and the Wounded Knee Massacre of the Lakota people by the U.S. Army in 1890. But government-sanctioned violence and colonialism did not end in the nineteenth century. This Thanksgiving, take some time to research other injustices in the history of our continent.
"But government-sanctioned violence and colonialism did not end in the nineteenth century. This Thanksgiving, take some time to research other injustices in the history of our continent."
Knowing the history, allies to Native Americans have a moral obligation to think critically about Thanksgiving, and to reconsider just what it is we are giving thanks for. This means respecting the many who see the holiday as a day of mourning, not a day of celebration. If we choose to continue celebrating Thanksgiving, allyship also means being proactive in reframing holiday stories and traditions in our own families. Sherman, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe and a chef focused on Indigenous culinary traditions, concludes his Time article with advice for Thanksgivings going forward. “[W]e do not need the poisonous ‘pilgrims [sic] and Indians’ narrative,” Sherman writes. Rather, he calls us to instead “focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude.” We can acknowledge the origins of Thanksgiving and its strong basis in Native American spirituality and culture without advancing colonialist ideology.
The most valuable resources on Native American history and contemporary issues will always be those written and run by Native Americans. Two of these organizations are Native Hope and NDN Collective. Their historical, educational and legal resources can be found at nativehope.org and ndncollective.org. Always seek out Indigenous perspectives on Indigenous issues.
Every person in the United States is living on Indigenous land. With this in mind, one of the first steps toward allyship and community support is to learn which nation’s lands you live on. Native Land is a Canadian nonprofit led by Indigenous people. Their website, native-land.ca, hosts an interactive map of Indigenous territories all over the world, including the United States. This can be a great starting point for personal accountability.
Critical awareness and education cannot be the end of our allyship to Native Americans. Indigenous nations across the country do not receive adequate support from the federal government, and their rights to sacred land are constantly chipped away by corporations and the law. Beyond history, research these contemporary legal battles, and participate in protests virtually and in-person. Everyone with the financial freedom to do so should also consider donating money directly in support of Indigenous communities.
Advocates have created bail funds to free Native American protesters who were arrested while fighting for their rights. Proceeds from the Black Hills Legal Defense Fund at bhlegalfund.org go to the legal expenses of protesters who were arrested at President Trump’s summer rally at Mount Rushmore. In addition to legal injustice, Indigenous communities in the U.S. have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic while receiving little help from the government. Many tribes and nations, including the Navajo Nation, are accepting donations to COVID-19 relief funds. These funds are hosted on GoFundMe and on the websites for each nation’s health department.
Thanksgiving is a reminder of the brutal history of colonialism in our country. We gather together to mourn that history, to celebrate cultural values or to recognize a duality of both aspects. But Thanksgiving cannot be the only day that we reexamine our history, and reexamining our history is only the first step. Native Americans — and Indigenous people all over the world — deserve respect, solidarity and allyship on every day of the year.