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The Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, 2011. Salt Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore. Courtesy of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers.

Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

by Dennis Zotigh


Article written for, and published by, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt from article: "In thinking about my earliest memories of elementary school, I remember being asked to bring a brown paper sack to class so that it could be decorated and worn as part of the Indian costume used to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was also instructed to make a less-than-authentic headband with Indian designs and feathers to complete this outfit. Looking back, I now know this was wrong.

The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture. The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery, an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.

The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples.

Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914). Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum.

When children are young, they are often exposed to antiquated images of American Indians through cartoons, books, and movies. But Thanksgiving re-enactments may be their most active personal encounter with Indian America, however poorly imagined, and many American children associate Thanksgiving actions and images with Indian culture for the rest of their lives. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy.

Tolerance of mockery by teachers is a great concern to Native parents. Much harm has been done to generations of Indian people by perpetuating negative and harmful images in young minds. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth. And 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.

Let’s begin with Squanto (aka Tisquantum), a Patuxet, one of more than 50 tribes who formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Around 1614, when he was perhaps 30, Squanto was kidnapped along with others of his people and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Malaga, Spain, where they were sold into slavery. Monks in Spain bought Squanto, shared their faith with him, and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615. In England he worked for shipbuilder John Slany and became proficient in English. In 1619 Squanto returned to his homeland by joining an exploring expedition along the New England coast. When he arrived at the village where he has been raised, all his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a devastating plague.

What about the Pilgrims? Separatists who fled from England to Holland seeking to escape religious persecution by English authorities, and who later booked passage to North America, are now called "Pilgrims," though Americans did not widely use the term until the 1870s. In November, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present-day Provincetown Harbor. After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who set out from Europe on the Mayflower had perished. In desperation the Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves at Corn Hill.

Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621, became friends with them, and taught them how to hunt and fish in order to survive in New England. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and how to plant gourds around the corn so that the vines could climb the cornstalks. Due to his knowledge of English, the Pilgrims made Squanto an interpreter and emissary between the English and Wampanoag Confederacy.

What really happened at the first Thanksgiving in 1621? The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of thanksgiving; the New England tribes already had autumn harvest feasts of thanksgiving. To the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the Creator.  In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. Massasoit and the ninety warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days. These original Thanksgiving foods are far different from the meals prepared in modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

Squanto died in 1622, but Massasoit outlived the era of relative peace in colonial New England. On May 26, 1637, near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies and Narragansett and Mohegan allies. Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated three hundred thousand Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England over the next few decades.

Looking at this history raises a question: Why should Native peoples celebrate Thanksgiving? Many 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. The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. 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.

I turn to the Internet to find out what Native people think of Thanksgiving. A few of the responses I received this year:

From Hydro, Oklahoma: Could we just start over and go forward? We can't change the past, but we can work for peace and unity in the future. History needs to be taught correctly in our schools—that is what needs to happen. My daughter had to write a paper about Big Tree, Satank, and Satanta. She interviewed Satanta's great-grandson, who was in his 90s, and told the story as he told it to her, including their transport from Fort Sill and how the feather was turned into a knife as they passed the giant tree, causing the soldiers to shoot and kill Satank. She got an AAA+ from her teacher.

Ecuador via Bozeman, Montana: It's important to share the whole, true story of the first Thanksgiving. Many of us were told a fairytale lie that led us to believe the same old story: Colonization was good for everyone and colonization was relatively peaceful (the violence was necessary, the ends justify the means). Now, a lot of us are learning more, and that comes from educating ourselves with the help from those who do know. I will say this, the generic idea of thanksgiving, or taking the time to be with family and friends and give thanks for all the blessings in our lives, the big and small, is a great practice and should happen more often. I wonder how we can turn a negative into a positive? Can we have an honest Thanksgiving? Can we move forward and, if so, where do we begin?

Santa Fe, New Mexico: My family and I celebrate Thanksgiving, not so much in the way that the "Pilgrims" may have done with the Indians. We give pause, and acknowledge all of the blessings that we received in the past year. We think of family and friends; of the homeless; of those away from family in hospitals, elders in nursing homes, those incarcerated, the soldier men and women overseas, around the world, standing watch and guarding our freedom. We think of those in mourning, whose family have gone ahead of them. We also think of those in school, no matter what age. And, finally, we pray for traveling mercies said for folks traveling home. We are thankful each day for Creator's gifts but on Thanksgiving, it seems we focus and are concentrated in our thoughts about these blessings.

Fairfax, Oklahoma: Our folks and ancestors left a good road to follow and prayed for gifts or successes for us that they may not have achieved. We have opportunities even more than them in these days and days to come. Long time ago we sat down in thanksgiving and had a great day. That's what Thanksgiving is to me, to enjoy and continue to achieve for yourself and them. They are smiling when we achieve. Aho.

Sevierville, Tennessee: Yes, I celebrate Thanksgiving. I have a thankful heart and feel blessed, so I give thanks.

Lawton, Oklahoma, with gentle humor: Do we have to feed the Pilgrims? Again?

(responses continued on link)
http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2013/11/do-indians-celebrate-thanksgiving.html 

Note: This essay by Dennis Zotigh was widely commented on when he wrote it for Thanksgiving 2011. Each year, we add readers' thoughts on the question, Do Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

About the Writer: Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendeant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

About the Photo: The Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, 2011. Salt Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore. Courtesy of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers.

Thanks to 'A Tribe Called Red' for sharing the article and encouraging reading and commenting on this article.

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Thanksgiving is not a holiday but rather a reminder of who killed who and who took what. I was taught by my Elders that we acknowledge Thankstaking but without the Thanks part. We know the truth as most do now and there was no giving just taking. Over 1 million Kawaiisu have been killed and still counting. The Slavery years from 1850 through 1958 were very long and hard to forget but I remember them. We signed a Treaty with the Americans in 1849 and we never broke our word for peace with them. But on the other hand the Americans killed, raped, enslaved, took our children for sex slaves to never to be seen again. Not to mention the 1 million killed. What would Thanksgiving mean to you if this was your Nation. It is a nightmare for us and there is no way to define it. I guess we are still their timberniggers.  

Thank you for expressing your thoughts David.

IT IS A TOTAL SHAME FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, WHO PRIDE THEMSELVES DOING JUSTICE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, FORCING OTHER PEOPLE TO TOE THEIR LINE OF THINKING. I HAVE BEEN TO THE LAND OF THE OZAKS AND MANY INDIAN AREAS, READ A LOT ABOUT THE INDIAN PEOPLES.

GBU.

DAMIEN.

.

"For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity."  [this is attributed to Sitting Bull - but even if it is not his quote ...its sentiment is noble]

We are always faced with a choice ...do we want to love? or is it something else we want...? Each must decide...

The word Warrior is something we had no idea about, it was something they put onto us. What they mean when apply it to Native Americans Nations is what they are and that is murderers, rapists, non-truth tellers, and thieves. We are nothing like that but rather we are lovers of life and community builders for a long line of generations.

I am the Chairman of over 100,000 Kawaiisu Citizens and my personal goal is to make love of each other interactive and full. We are in the eyes of our enemies defenseless because we are a loving and peaceful people. And that in American eyes is weak and something that can be capitalized on. The Unborn are our long awaited friends and we love them as much as life itself.

Noble is not a word I would use to define the Kawaiisu, The word to use is loving and caring as our Creator has taught us. As she laid her kind and loving hand upon a place called Koso a people appeared and she called them the Nochi (Kawaiisu). The name Kawaiisu is very bad and we never called ourselves that but now we are forced to do so because the Anthropologists call us that.

 

David... Love is the One thing we - all who honor Great Spirit and the product of such Creation - must fully pursue... the massacre of One is that of All... we know this Truth to be self-evident. Here on Earth ...in Mother's arms ...we are living our last chance to heal.

Let us proceed on this sacred path with all the Patience and Embrace we can extend each other. This may very well be our last opportunity to bring Peace to each other... two more red moons will pass - how much longer can we remain deaf and blind to the Hope we see in each Other's eyes ...?

Thanks..

"...I am Hopi - the Peaceful People."

I have made a covenant with Wakantanka ...never to raise my arms in anger again.  The trail ahs been a long one ...many winters have come and gone. But my 'word' has prevailed... Aho!

It is time now ...time evolves - it is time for renewal...!

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