For most white Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family eating amazing food and watching football. It’s the prelude to Black Friday and the Christmas season, a Thursday off work, and an opportunity to eat our way into a food coma and blame it on tryptophan. But for more than five million Americans today, the holiday is a little more fraught.
For Native Americans, Thanksgiving can be a time of mourning and remembrance. But nearly 400 years after that first Thanksgiving, do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the truth of their side of this holiday.
The True Story of the First Thanksgiving
Most of us grew up hearing the story of the first Thanksgiving in school. The white pilgrims had settled in what is now New England and didn’t have enough supplies to make it through the winter. The Native Americans gave them food, and the pilgrims and the Native Americans ate a feast together.
The truth is that the pilgrims chose to settle at Plymouth because every Native American who had lived there had been wiped out by the plague. Squanto, the Native American is known for helping the pilgrims, had been captured as a slave and returned to find his entire tribe dead. And after this supposedly idyllic meal, the pilgrims and their descendants proceeded to enslave, slaughter, persecute, and rob millions of Native Americans over the next few centuries.
For white people, the story of the first Thanksgiving is a joyful one full of plentiful harvests and community sharing. For Native Americans, it is a remembrance of a violent past.
Some Who Celebrate
In spite of the bloody beginnings of Thanksgiving, the holiday has changed over time. While we do still learn the (significantly cleaned-up) story of the first Thanksgiving in school, most of us don’t celebrate the holiday in that light. Instead, it’s about time with family, gratitude, and most of all, good food!
Because of this changed meaning and in spite of the violent past, some Native Americans do choose to celebrate Thanksgiving. Some view this as a chance to be the bigger person and continue a heritage of extending grace to anyone who needs it. Others celebrate the resilience of their people and the fact that they are one of the select few groups who survived the oppression.
Many Native American children celebrate Thanksgiving, willingly or not, in their schools. Many schools celebrate Thanksgiving in the classroom. Children may even be assigned the role of a pilgrim or a Native American in a mini-reenactment of that supposed first Thanksgiving.
Anti-racist organizations today are working to make schools more aware of the true history of Thanksgiving. They want to teach these children that being Native American is not a role, but a part of a person’s identity. The groups encourage teachers to provide accurate information about Native American culture.
Some Native American communities choose to celebrate Thanksgiving not as a once-a-year event, but all year round. The Oneida Nation, for example, have thirteen ceremonies throughout the year that focus on giving thanks. The fourth Thursday in November may be a part of these celebrations, but it is not the only such occasion.
Another group, the Ho-Chunk Nation, maintain a mindset of constant gratitude. “We are a very spiritual people who are always giving thanks,” said Anne Thundercloud. “We think of every day as Thanksgiving.”
Some Who Don’t Celebrate
There are, unsurprisingly, some Native Americans who choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving at all. Instead, some people choose to recognize a National Day of Mourning for the oppression of their culture. This holiday was started unintentionally at a banquet in 1970.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Frank James, a Wampanoag man, to give a speech in honor of the 350th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. James wrote a speech that talked about the realities of Indian-European relations at the time, and the organizers didn’t like it. They asked him to deliver a different speech that left out the ugly side of the holiday, and in protest, he began the National Day of Mourning.
If you are a non-Native American, this year, try to be aware of the problematic celebrations that may happen around this time. We already touched on some of the issues with elementary school celebrations. Not only do they ignore the violent history of this holiday, but they perpetuate racist stereotypes.
It may not seem as harmful, but celebrations that ignore the truth of how Thanksgiving began are a problem, too. If you are white, you have the privilege of ignoring this painful past if you choose. Native Americans do not always have that option, and it is important to take time to recognize and remember the true history of the holiday.
How to Celebrate Inclusively
If you are not Native American, take a moment this Thanksgiving to think about celebrating inclusively. If you get the opportunity, talk to your family about what the first Thanksgiving meant for both the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. And keep in mind what it continues to mean for many Native Americans today.
During your celebrations, this year, try to avoid any Native American-themed decorations. If you have children, find a gentle way to talk to them about the truth of how white people treated the Native Americans during colonialism. And consider donating money to organizations that preserve Native American culture and heritage.
Do Native Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?
The answer to the question, “Do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?” is as complex as the holiday itself. For some, it’s another opportunity to remember their heritage and give thanks for their life. For others, it’s a painful remembrance of a great period of suffering and oppression.
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