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Indigenous people reflect on how to better honor their history and cultures on Thanksgiving

A dinner table decorated for Thanksgiving.
Creative Commons

Thanksgiving and its history are a large part of United States lore. Even as some parts of the country have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, Thanksgiving remains a mainstay in popular culture and education. But for some Native American people, Thanksgiving is not observed as a holiday at all. 

“It wasn’t our holiday. It was just more of just another day of surviving,” said Fred Keams, a member of the Navajo Nation. 

Keams grew up on a reservation in Arizona. He said any observance of Thanksgiving for him was focused on the food associated with the day, but never the holiday itself. 

Growing up on a reservation also informed Keams' understanding of the story of Thanksgiving. 

“What was taught to us was the Pilgrims came over and they wanted to take over, that we tried to come help and they didn’t want any help and it came out to a big fight,” Keams said. “It wasn’t a peaceful thing for us.”

For Native folks who grew up off reservations or were not connected to their communities' traditions, the story of Thanksgiving and the celebrations around it were in line with typical understandings.

Mi’kmaq nation member Venus Evans grew up celebrating the majority culture, while having to hold back Native traditions. 

“As far as being able to share ceremony or our heritage, that just didn’t happen,” Evans said. 

Similarly, Helen Danser, a member of the Piqua Shawnee nation and chair of KY Native American Heritage Commission, said her family enjoyed all the Thanksgiving classics without realizing the historical implications of the food on the table — food that comes directly from early colonists learning the farming practices of Native people.

It wasn’t until Danser began to connect with members of the Native communities that would have interacted with Pilgrims and early settlers that she began to hear different stories about the first Thanksgiving and what happened afterward.

“One of the stories that I am aware of is that after the Indians fed them and started going back to their villages, they were shot and killed. Other stories indicate that there were some friendships made during that first Thanksgiving,” Danser said. “It is not possible for us to know what really happened after that first Thanksgiving.”

What is clear, however, is that most U.S. public schools don’t give the full story surrounding Thanksgiving. That has contributed to the holiday’s overall history being lost to lore.

“All the history of everything is going right out the door now. No one really cares about what had happened in the past,” Keams said.

Like the lore around Thanksgiving, there are several pieces of misinformation about the Native community that have made their way into the popular media. 

This includes depicting all Native communities as a monolith, issues with Hollywood portrayals of Indigenous communities, and the idea that Native people don’t exist in the U.S. anymore. Evans said there are more than 570 federally recognized and 60 state recognized tribes, along with others that are unrecognized. 

Many people believe the best way to combat stereotypes and misinformation and properly honor the history of Indigenous people in the U.S. is through education.

That includes information about ongoing court battles to protect Native sovereignty, continued erasure of the existence of Native communities and harsh living conditions on reservations.

Evans said with more education, people could be more willing to question the traditions and story of Thanksgiving, similar to how discussions around Christopher Columbus have evolved.

“That’s where it starts: education. Start with our children,” Evans said. “We’re not in the past, we’re not ‘used to’ or ‘we were.’ We are.”

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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