Native perception of Thanksgiving

It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving, a holiday that many Americans and Canadians celebrate for the purpose of remembrance and being thankful. It is also commonly known for the harvest feast of 1621 between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Natives. 

While many view this as a day of celebration and blessings, others view it as a historically upsetting day. Native American artist and author Sherman Alexie, stated his opinions on the holiday in an interview. “You take the holiday and make it yours. That doesn’t strip it of its original meaning or its context. There’s still the really sad holiday as well. It is a holiday that commemorates the beginning of the end for us, the death of a culture. I guess you could say Thanksgiving is also about survival, look how strong we are.”

Winona LaDuke, a Native American environmentalist, also gave her opinion about the American misconception of Native Americans. “People know nothing about us, but they like to dress up like us or have us as a mascot. We are invisible. Take it from me. I travel a lot, and often ask this question: Can you name 10 indigenous nations? Often, no one can name us. The most common nations named are Lakota, Cherokee, Navajo, Cheyenne and Blackfeet — mostly native people from western movies. This is the problem with history. If you make the victim disappear, there is no crime. And we just disappeared.”

The true history of Thanksgiving has been engulfed in forgetfulness and lack of knowledge. The history of Native Americans as well as the variety of Native American tribes are not being taught properly as they should be in the K–12 system. In fact, a lot of students do not receive an actual class based on Native Americans and their struggle until college.

On Thanksgiving, people are able to see their family members and friends, get days off of work and school, and shop early for gifts on Black Friday for Christmas and other occasions. Many personal events go on and around Thanksgiving itself, which can make people oblivious to the unsettling events that took place during that time. For a nation-wide holiday that advocates for the unity of Natives and pilgrims, why was it that Native Americans were not able to become American citizens until 1924 and not be able to vote in all states until 1962?

As a community, we need to start with the recognition of the closest tribe to us, the Puyallup tribe, as well as the many other tribes that are still not federally recognized. This is already starting to happen, with Native symbol stickers being sold at the University store, and having a variety of courses offered on many campuses of Indigenous studies.

Leila Ettachfini wrote an article titled “How to Support Indeginous People on Thanksgiving” on Vice that goes over many ways people can show respect towards the many tribes, including learning the tribe around you and referring to them by their tribe name, or as they please. She also included learning the history taught through the Native American lense, recommending the book “Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution” by Oren Lyons.

Sean Sherman, CEO of The Sioux Chef and a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe explained why he doesn’t dismiss the holiday, but celebrates it differently: “The thing is, we do not need the poisonous ‘pilgrims and Indians’ narrative. We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk and think about anyway: the food.”

Thanksgiving can still be celebrated as it is an individual’s personal choice. However, there are more respectful ways to observe this U.S. and Canadian holiday. Recognizing the tribe closest to you is a start, learning their name, the language they speak, their history. Teachers spend hours teaching colonial history through European history, we can spend at least 20 minutes on our community tribes website.

As a community, we must recognize the struggles and hardships that the tribes around us are still put through, with discrimination and neglection from our U.S. government. We must protect and fight for their rights, and this starts first with knowledge, as that is the only weapon a human should ever need against injustice.