Native Americans spend their Thanksgiving ‘mourning,’ honoring culture

November 23, 2021
A Cheyenne River Youth Project teaches Indigenous cooking to Native American children in South Dakota
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How do Indigenous people spend Thanksgiving?

For many, rather than a celebration of peace and shared prosperity between Native Americans and Pilgrims, Thanksgiving represents the dark shadow of genocide and the resilience of Native people.

Every tribe and every individual may have a different way of spending Thanksgiving. Some will gather together with their families and share a meal, exchanging prayers and stories from the rich oral history of Native Americans. Others will fast for the entire day.

For tribal citizen Dennis W. Zotigh, Thanksgiving is “a day of mourning.” Zotigh is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. 

“To most Natives, Thanksgiving is not a celebration. Natives, particularly in the New England area, remember this attempted genocide as a factual part of their history and are reminded each year during the modern Thanksgiving,” Zotigh says.

Zotigh works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill to mourn. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget the sacrifices and tragedies of its Native people. 

The real roots of Thanksgiving: Rethinking what happened 400 years ago at the first feast in Plymouth

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 is not celebrating Thanksgiving and is instead organizing an event on Native American Heritage Day called “Thanks for Kids,” which celebrates Native children. Kids on the Cheyenne River reservation can enjoy home-cooked tacos and participate in fun activities. In the past, they have made 

In the past, she has made Native dishes like buffalo roast and pumpkin soup, in an effort to honor Indigenous history by cooking foods that Indigenous people would have normally eaten.

Garreau has also worked with children in the Cheyenne River Youth Project to make wasna, a traditional food of the Plains Indians made from a mixture of dried meat (usually buffalo), dried berries (usually chokecherries) and fat (usually kidney fat or bone marrow) that is pounded together with a mortar and pestle.

Other years, they have held classes teaching Indigenous children to sew together moccasins.

Joshua Arce, president and CEO of the Partnership with Native Americans, still participates in Thanksgiving but views the holiday as a way to gather with family and celebrate Indigenous culture. He’s a part of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a federally-recognized tribe in Kansas.

“I had a very blended household because my mom’s side of the family is Native American, and my father’s side is Mexican American. It was always about being together with family,” Arce says. “It’s about being able to celebrate in a lot of ways, the resiliency of our families.”

Along with a Thanksgiving turkey, Arce’s family will also eat wild rice casseroles, given that wild rice was a staple for Potawatomi tribe of the northern Great Lakes region.

Thanksgiving celebrations are also heavily centered around prayer, which include giving thanks for and remembering relatives that passed before us and putting out prayers for a good fall and winter, especially to stay warm through the winter and have needs met, Arce says.

Like Garreau and Zotigh, Arce also called Thanksgiving “a day of mourning” that creates multigenerational and intergenerational trauma. He associates it with Eurocentric terms that came to dominate Native peoples, like colonization, discovery and manifest destiny.

What can we do to respect Natives?

Garreau says the top thing that people can do is get educated and learn the real history of Thanksgiving.

Garreau points out that Native Americans in South Dakota have long been trying to change school curriculums to more accurately reflect Indigenous history, but have been repeatedly shot down by the state legislature.

‘Political football’ or ‘mountain out of a molehill’? South Dakota officials clash over Indigenous education standards

Garreau and Arce all described learning about Thanksgiving as a harmonious celebration involving mutual cooperation and respect. They experienced a rude awakening in adulthood upon learning the true story and understanding the dynamic between the colonizers and the colonized.

“Thanksgiving, as the United States’ origin story, leaves out painful truths about our nation’s history. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth,” Zotigh says.

However, Zotigh and Arce acknowledge that describing the true history of Thanksgiving may be too much for young children given the violence and stark realities of colonization.

National Geographic’s portrayal of the real ThanksgivingTelling the true story of Thanksgiving

“While I agree that elementary-school children who celebrate 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 graduation,” Zotigh says.

As part of his work at the Partnership with Native Americans, Arce has also prepared material on its website (nativepartnership.org) that explains the true history behind Thanksgiving. They’ve even made lesson plans to discuss the subject sensitively with children from kindergarten to third grade. They include age appropriate lessons on Native culture and heritage, culturally appropriate crafts, book recommendations and writing prompt ideas.

Arce also points out that less than 1% of charitable giving supports Native causes and recommends donating the Native causes on Giving Tuesday.

While each of these tribal citizens spends their Thanksgiving differently, they all take the time to acknowledge atrocities of the past and thank their ancestors.

Giving thanks has always been part of Native Americans’ everyday lives, Zotigh says.

You can follow the author Michelle Shen @michelle_shen10 on Twitter. 

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