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Thanksgiving: A Day of Celebration or Mourning for Native Americans?

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Thanksgiving: A Day of Celebration or Mourning for Native Americans?

This portrayal of the first Thanksgiving shows the Pilgrims feeding the Wampanoag people. Actually, the Pilgrims depended on Natives to prevent starving in the New England cold.

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Thanksgiving has become synonymous with family, food and football over the years. But this unassuming American holiday is not without controversy. Schools still teach children that Thanksgiving marks the day that Pilgrims met helpful Indians who gave them food, farming techniques and more to overcome the bitter New England cold. The children color cutouts of happy Pilgrims and happy Indians which ignore that contact between the two led to the decimation of millions of Native peoples. To raise awareness about the price indigenous people paid for Thanksgiving, a group called the United American Indians of New England established Thanksgiving as its National Day of Mourning in 1970. The fact that UAINE mourns on this day poses a question to any socially conscious American: Should Thanksgiving be celebrated?

Why Some Natives Celebrate Thanksgiving

The decision to celebrate Thanksgiving divides even Native Americans. Jacqueline Keeler wrote a widely circulated editorial about why she, a member of the Dineh Nation and Yankton Dakota Sioux, celebrates the holiday. For one, Keeler views herself as “a very select group of survivors.” The fact that Natives managed to survive mass murder, forced relocation, theft of land and other injustices “with our ability to share and to give intact” gives Keeler hope that healing is possible.

In her essay, Keeler makes it clear that she takes issue with how one-dimensionally Natives are portrayed in commercialized Thanksgiving celebrations. The Thanksgiving she recognizes is a revisionist one. She explains:

“These were not merely ‘friendly Indians.’ They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary—but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect.”

Award-winning author Sherman Alexie, who is Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, also celebrates Thanksgiving by recognizing the contributions the Wampanoag people made to the Pilgrims. Asked in a Sadie Magazine interview if he celebrates the holiday, Alexie humorously answered:

“We live up to the spirit of Thanksgiving cuz we invite all of our most desperately lonely white [friends] to come eat with us. We always end up with the recently broken up, the recently divorced, the brokenhearted. From the very beginning, Indians have been taking care of brokenhearted white people. …We just extend that tradition.”

If we’re to follow Keeler and Alexie’s lead, Thanksgiving should be celebrated by highlighting the contributions of the Wampanoag. All too often Thanksgiving is celebrated from a Eurocentric point of view. Tavares Avant, former president of the Wampanoag tribal council, cited this as an annoyance about the holiday during an ABC interview.

“It’s all glorified that we were the friendly Indians and that’s where it ends,” he said. “I do not like that. It kind of disturbs me that we...celebrate Thanksgiving…based on conquest.”

Schoolchildren are particularly vulnerable to being taught to celebrate the holiday in this manner. Some schools, however, are making headway in teaching revisionist Thanksgiving lessons. Both teachers and parents can influence the way children think about Thanksgiving.

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