November 23, 2016

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

ThanksgivingCircleSlashCrop2
Five years ago, Dennis Zotigh wrote a short essay for the museum on the Thanksgiving story and how he observes the holiday. Since then, Dennis has asked Native friends to talk about how their families spend Thanksgiving Day. Here are some of the responses people gave him this year. Dennis's essay, including people's earlier answers to his question, appears below: 

Wellington, Kansas: Thanksgiving was a blending of two different cultures, one culture helping another to survive. The historical knowledge we have now of what was actually taking place may not be the same as what was being experienced in those days. Our assessment now may not be fair because of all that the Native people have endured. 

Exeter, California: Being the only Native American classroom teacher at a public school, raised mostly in an urban setting steeped heavy in traditional American holidays, and around many other native people on weekends while traveling to dance, this has always been a challenging question for me that I cannot claim to know the answer for. I see many other teachers I work with who are not native struggle with knowing how to address the issue comfortably. I have to say, I have fear that if we avoid the issue altogether, Native people will be forgotten about. I have seen some teachers decide to stop teaching about Native Americans for fear of offending. I personally get sad when I see that happen. I know Thanksgiving is a controversial subject, and there are so many viewpoints. I share the modern theme of Thanksgiving, which I think has good intentions—family and community. I have also chosen to teach about Native American culture, even more heavily in November because of Thanksgiving, even though it is no longer a part of the curriculum. I have found ways to integrate it while teaching something that I think is important. I do an assembly for the students in which we dance, and I emphasize how it is not possible to teach everything there is to know about Native Americans in just one assembly. I emphasize the diversity among native people. 

San Antonio, Texas: Except for the last four years, the twenty years before that I spent almost all of my Thanksgivings at the table of my brother-in-law. Our gatherings were about giving thanks for what we had. As for Native American history being left out of teaching, it is an outrage. Educate our fellow educators on how to teach it. It would be a great way to help others teach courses and show how to respect the culture.

Edmonton, Alberta: We have family members with addiction issues. The kids get to eat, which my mom loves. And we are thankful not only to survive colonization, but also grateful to feed family.

Norman, Oklahoma: We celebrate and give thanks for our loved ones' being able to be together again. But when my daughter was young and the realization hit, as it does all young American Indians, she said to me , "Do you think we should have helped them?" There will be extra prayers for Standing Rock at our table. 

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

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

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. 

Thanksgiving-Ferris
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), The First Thanksgiving 1621. Color halftone of an oil painting from the series The Pageant of a Nation. Library of Congress. (LC-USZC4-4961

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.

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

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 friends on the Internet to find out what Native people think of Thanksgiving. A few of the responses I have received over the years:

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?

And here are a few people's thoughts in 2013: 

Aylett, Virginia: It is good to celebrate the concept of gratitude and thankfulness. When the holiday story is based on a lie that covers up the national moral atrocity of genocide, the statement about the people who celebrate is not good. Shining light on the truth will always bring about healing. 

Montville, Connecticut: Thanksgiving was celebrated for murder and slavery rather than friendship and harvest. 

Greenbelt, Maryland: I don't necessarily look at the holiday as pilgrims-meet-Indians-and-chow-down. I celebrate it as the time the cycle of alcoholism was broken in our family, and we have a feast to celebrate that. 

Norman, Oklahoma: It's pretty much a family reunion for me, and there is eating, visiting, being thankful, and having a good time. Because of that, there is no reason to worry about the history. Similar to the idea that our dances fall on the 4th of July and instead of celebrating independence, it is more like a homecoming to our Kiowa people. 

California: When I went to school there was two Indians in our class—me and a Hopi girl. Neither one of us had to endure any of this because her mother and my mother both raised hell with the principal. No fake headbands or feathers for us. 

Pala, California: When my kids were in pre-school is when I decided I needed to represent our people at this time of year more than any other. I would be damned if my kids were gonna wear paper bags like the other students. I wasn't having that. I learned to get the story across at their age level and show them the beauty and generosity of our people. I remember growing up and my mom getn upset with me because on Thanksgiving day I would come to the dinner table in my PJs and hair unbrushed, knowing the day was not a celebration. But now that I'm a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 1, I understand as Native people we give thanks to the Creator every day. On Thanksgiving Day I'm just grateful our people are still here and still stand strong. 

Salt Lake City, Utah: Thanksgiving, to me, is to be grateful for all the good blessings that came my way. Good health. Gift of family. Regardless of history, there are still many Natives in the land, and that shows how resilient we are. To honor those who went before us, let us share our culture and stories, teach the youth to learn from the past and to make our lives so our ancestors are proud of us. Example is a great educator. 

Alberta, Canada: It is an opportunity for those who do take note . . . . There will be those who roll their eyes, and others who may gain deeper appreciation, to honor (maybe even emulate) a more giving nature . . . , that of their Creator. 

Crow Agency, Montana: My Dad used to say, "We give thanks everyday, so if they want to give us a holiday to give thanks, I'll take it." 

Unfortunately, I didn't include where people were writing from in the essay when it first appeared in 2011:

I was infuriated when my daughter’s school had a mock feast complete with paper mache headdresses and Pilgrim hats!

When they did that to my kids in elementary, I TORE those items up and signed my kids out of school for that day.

For Thanksgiving I was the Indian. Umm Go figure . . . .

Someone took a picture of me in front of the class, and to this day . . . it bothers me. Don't get the whole making a fest in school.   

Tonight I have to lead a children's Bible class, and they want me to theme it around Thanksgiving. I will, but it's not going to be about the happy pilgrims and all that stuff. Thankfulness to God is one thing, but elevating pilgrims to hero status is out of the question.  

When my daughter Victoria was in grade school she had a teacher give them the assignment to write a report on Thanksgiving dinner, and Victoria wrote hers as to why our family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Victoria got an F on the paper, and I threatened to go to the school board if the principal didn't get it changed. Victoria got an A, and the class got a lesson on Native American heritage. 

Ignorance and not near enough education in the school systems! It is very sad that a majority of what is taught is very superficial and the dark aspects of our history are neatly tucked away.Very sad!

Considered a day of mourning in our house.

For skins [American Indians], Thanksgiving should be the Last Supper. 


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.

Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.  

—Dennis W. Zotigh

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 descendant 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.

The original version of this essay was published on November 23, 2011.

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August 26, 2016

Meet Native America: Dr. Michael E. Marchand, Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh

Chairman Michael E. Marchand
Chairman Michael E. Marchand, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Photo courtesy of the Colville Tribes.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

I'm Dr. Michael E. Marchand, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?

It's Qualth-a-meen. It means Wolverine.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Colville Indian Reservation covers 1.4 million acres in north central Washington.

Where is your tribe originally from?

The 12 tribes that make up the confederation—their English and French names are the Colville, Nespelem, San Poil, Lake, Palus, Wenatchi (Wenatchee), Chelan, Entiat, Methow, southern Okanogan, Moses Columbia, and Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce—were from a large area, including parts of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. They hunted buffalo over an even larger area of the Great Plains in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Alberta. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

I would choose the time in the 1970s when termination was stopped. The Klamath Tribe had just been terminated, and we were next in line. A determined effort by us and tribes across the nation stopped this policy, and we were saved.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Colville Tribes adopted a constitution in 1938. It replaced 12 traditional chiefs with a 14-person elected Council. The Council has full powers to manage the tribe's lands and assets, and all activities on the reservation.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Yes, but it varies amongst the 12 tribes.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Terms are two years long. Seven seats are up for election each year.

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?

My goals are to protect and manage our lands, protect and enhance our culture and traditions, and protect our sovereignty. Also to help our members achieve their own potentials.

 


Fisheries signingDuring an earlier term as chairman, Dr. Marchand signed the Columbia River Basin Fish Accords on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. From left to right: Col. Steven Miles, Northwestern Division commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Dr. Marchand; and Ralph Sampson, at that time chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council. Columbia Hills State Park, Washington; May 8, 2008. Photo courtesy of the Columbia River Basin Federal Caucus.

 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I worked my way up through the tribe's organization from bottom to top. Went to college. Lived on the reservation, hunting and fishing, participating in community events and traditions, and was lucky to have role models including grandparents and uncles and cousins who helped raise me.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My grandfather was a chairman, too, and he spent time with me. Dennis Banks was important too—I met him when I was a teen.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

My grandfather John Cleveland, the grandfather who was one of our chairmen. My family also descended from many of our chiefs, including Chief Silcosasket of the Entiat Tribe and Chief Aurapahkin of the Arrow Lakes Tribe. Both chiefs were important to our people in their day.

Approximately how many members are in the Colville Tribes?

We have about 9,400 members.

What are the criteria to become a member?

To be a member, a person must either be one-quarter Colville blood from the official 1938 rolls or else be a member of the Okanagan or Arrow Lakes tribes from Canada. Some of our people were cut off by the U.S.–Canadian border.

Are your languages still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Our languages are in danger of being lost. Probably fewer than five percent of the people still speak them. But we are taking steps to save them and to teach the next generation.

What economic enterprises do the tribes own?

Through the Colville Tribal Federal Corporation we own sawmills, casinos, convenience stores, grocery stores, and a security guard company.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

Many, but a couple important ones are the Nespelem 4th of July Celebration and the Omak Stampede and Suicide Race, held the second weekend of August.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The most prominent attractions are Grand Coulee Damour tribal museumLake Chelan and many other lakes, and our three casinos.

How does your tribe deal with the United States and Canada as a sovereign nation?

Currently we have a lawsuit pending against Canada for lands confiscated from our people. We are very active in U.S. relations.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?

Serve Mother Earth and your people as best you can and get yourself educated.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Tribal people need to step up and save the planet. A lot of effort was spent to destroy us, but we are still here. We need to take advantage of our life now.

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

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September 03, 2015

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: Mukluks

Mukluks 255337

Inupiaq mukluks, ca. 1950. Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association, Nome, Alaska. 25.6 x 9.8 x 23.2 cm; ugruk (bearded seal), white reindeer, calfskin, red felt, yarn. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/5337


The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) purchased many things from Native arts and crafts cooperatives in the United States as a way to showcase the latest regional work. Like this pair of mukluks, many objects in the IACB Headquarters Collection are products of Alaska.

These mukluks were made by members of the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association. Originally funded by a bonus of $5,000 from Admiral Richard Byrd for clothing they provided for his Antarctic expeditions, the Nome Skin Sewers made skin parkas, pants, hats, and mukluks for sale. Its members were primarily Inupiaq women.

World War II had a profound effect on the arts and crafts of Alaska. In 1943, Alaskan arts and crafts brought in $242,100 in revenue; that figure rose to $420,201 in 1944 (Robert Fay Schrader, The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: An Aspect of New Deal Indian Policy, p. 281). In 1944, the Nome Skin Sewers alone sold $200,000-worth of products to the military (see Alaska History and Cultural Studies, "World War II brings economic activity").

Members of the military stationed in Alaska needed Arctic gear. Mukluks and skin parkas worked better than standard issue military clothing. Waterproof and reaching above the ankles, mukluks keep feet warm in ice and snow. Made around 1950, this pair of mukluks is sewn of ugruk (bearded seal), white reindeer, and calfskin. Red felt and yarn are used for decoration at top.

Emma Willoya
John Nichols, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Emma Willoya (Inupiaq), Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association, 1949. Nome, Alaska. Photo by E. P. Haddon/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2010 Uqaaqtuaq News printed a 1980 interview with Emma Willoya, a founder of  the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association and its manager in the 1950s. After talking about reindeer herding and the use of reindeer hides, Ms. Willoya recounted a disagreement with a customer who chastised her for the strong smell of the home-tanned skins she used to make boots. She explained that although Outside-tanned skins might be softer, they drew in moisture; hand-tanned, Alaska-tanned skins were more durable and warmer:

“You make them for me Outside-tanned anyway!”

So we made them Outside-tanned. Later on, he came in, the big shot, and sat by the heating stove. I was in the other room, taking inventory, when one of the sewers called, “Emma, you have to come out here! This man won’t listen!” Here the man had taken off his mukluks and put them on top of the heating stove!

“Good Lord! You can’t do that! Look what you did!” I went and picked them up. They were shriveled on the bottom. When I touched them, they tore to pieces. I told him, “You spoiled your mukluks! I told you they wouldn’t last! Outside-tanned mukluks draw moisture and freeze your feet!” He wanted to dry them right away and he cooked them.

He began to understand that Eskimos knew a little more than he did. Next time he ordered Alaska-tanned mukluks and his feet were never cold again. Even in wet and snowy weather he wasn’t cold.

—Anya Montiel

Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.

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July 04, 2015

Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

The museum updated this short essay, originally posted on July 3, 2013, with a few more people's descriptions of how they spend the 4th of July. How do you, your family, or your community observe the day? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to culture and land loss. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals. That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans.

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
The Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming Pow Wow recognizes returning veterans. Pawnee, Oklahoma. The 68th annual Pawnee homecoming takes place July 3 through 6, 2014. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans. Used with permission.


During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we went to Facebook. This handful of replies represents both the diversity of responses we received and the direction of the discussion: 

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It's a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language, [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries. . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country. 

Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.

As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I’ll be with my two daughters, and we'll watch a huge fireworks display!

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.


How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

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November 26, 2013

Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

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


The essay below by Dennis Zotigh was originally written for Thanksgiving 2011. Since then, Dennis has asked Native friends to talk about how their families observe Thanksgiving. Here are some of the responses people gave him this year: 

Wellington, Kansas: Thanksgiving was a blending of two different cultures, one culture helping another to survive. The historical knowledge we have now of what was actually taking place may not be the same as what was being experienced in those days. Our assessment now may not be fair because of all that the Native people have endured. 

Exeter, California: Being the only Native American classroom teacher at a public school, raised mostly in an urban setting steeped heavy in traditional American holidays, and around many other native people on weekends while traveling to dance, this has always been a challenging question for me that I cannot claim to know the answer for. I see many other teachers I work with who are not native struggle with knowing how to address the issue comfortably. I have to say, I have fear that if we avoid the issue altogether, Native people will be forgotten about. I have seen some teachers decide to stop teaching about Native Americans for fear of offending. I personally get sad when I see that happen. I know Thanksgiving is a controversial subject, and there are so many viewpoints. I share the modern theme of Thanksgiving, which I think has good intentions—family and community. I have also chosen to teach about Native American culture, even more heavily in November because of Thanksgiving, even though it is no longer a part of the curriculum. I have found ways to integrate it while teaching something that I think is important. I do an assembly for the students in which we dance, and I emphasize how it is not possible to teach everything there is to know about Native Americans in just one assembly. I emphasize the diversity among native people. 

Sevierville, Tennessee: Regardless of all the political views of Thanksgiving, we can all find something to be thankful for!

San Antonio, Texas: Except for the last four years, the twenty years before that I spent 95 percent of my Thanksgivings at the table of my brother-in-law. Our gatherings were about giving thanks for what we had. As for Native American history being left out of teaching, it is an outrage. Educate our fellow educators on how to teach it. It would be a great way to help others teach courses and show how to respect the culture.

Edmonton, Alberta: We have family members with addiction issues. The kids get to eat, which my mom loves. And we are thankful not only to survive colonization, but also grateful to feed family.

Norman, Oklahoma: We celebrate and give thanks for our loved ones' being able to be together again. But when my daughter was young and the realization hit, as it does all young American Indians, she said to me , "Do you think we should have helped them?" There will be extra prayers for Standing Rock at our table.

________________________

Dennis's original essay and readers' responses to his question from earlier Thanksgivings:


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.

Thanksgiving-Brownscombe
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 have received over the years:

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?

And here are a few people's thoughts in 2013: 

Aylett, Virginia: It is good to celebrate the concept of gratitude and thankfulness. When the holiday story is based on a lie that covers up the national moral atrocity of genocide, the statement about the people who celebrate is not good. Shining light on the truth will always bring about healing. 

Montville, Connecticut: Thanksgiving was celebrated for murder and slavery rather than friendship and harvest. 

Greenbelt, Maryland: I don't necessarily look at the holiday as pilgrims-meet-Indians-and-chow-down. I celebrate it as the time the cycle of alcoholism was broken in our family, and we have a feast to celebrate that. 

Norman, Oklahoma: It's pretty much a family reunion for me, and there is eating, visiting, being thankful, and having a good time. Because of that, there is no reason to worry about the history. Similar to the idea that our dances fall on the 4th of July and instead of celebrating independence, it is more like a homecoming to our Kiowa people. 

California: When I went to school there was two Indians in our class me and a hopi girl neither one of us had to endure any of this because her mother and my mother both raised hell with the principal no fake headbands or feathers for us. 

Pala, California: When my kids were in pre-school is when I decided I needed to represent our people at this time of year more than any other. I would be damned if my kids were gonna wear paper bags like the other students. I wasn't having that. I learned to get the story across at their age level and show them the beauty and generosity of our people. I remember growing up and my mom getn upset with me because on Thanksgiving day I would come to the dinner table in my PJs and hair unbrushed, knowing the day was not a celebration. But now that I'm a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 1, I understand as Native people we give thanks to the Creator every day. On Thanksgiving Day I'm just grateful our people are still here and still stand strong. 

Salt Lake City, Utah: Thanksgiving, to me, is to be grateful for all the good blessings that came my way. Good health. Gift of family. Regardless of history, there are still many Natives in the land, and that shows how resilient we are. To honor those who went before us, let us share our culture and stories, teach the youth to learn from the past and to make our lives so our ancestors are proud of us. Example is a great educator. 

Alberta, Canada: It is an opportunity for those who do take note . . . . There will be those who roll their eyes, and others who may gain deeper appreciation, to honor (maybe even emulate) a more giving nature . . . , that of their Creator. 

Crow Agency, Montana: My Dad used to say, "We give thanks everyday, so if they want to give us a holiday to give thanks, I'll take it." 

Unfortunately, I didn't include where people were writing from in the essay when it first appeared in 2011:

I was infuriated when my daughter’s school had a mock feast complete with paper mache headdresses and Pilgrim hats!

When they did that to my kids in elementary, I TORE those items up and signed my kids out of school for that day.

For Thanksgiving I was the Indian. Umm Go figure . . . .

Someone took a picture of me in front of the class, and to this day . . . it bothers me. Don't get the whole making a fest in school.   

Tonight I have to lead a children's Bible class, and they want me to theme it around Thanksgiving. I will, but it's not going to be about the happy pilgrims and all that stuff. Thankfulness to God is one thing, but elevating pilgrims to hero status is out of the question.  

When my daughter Victoria was in grade school she had a teacher give them the assignment to write a report on Thanksgiving dinner, and Victoria wrote hers as to why our family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Victoria got an F on the paper, and I threatened to go to the school board if the principal didn't get it changed. Victoria got an A, and the class got a lesson on Native American heritage. 

Ignorance and not near enough education in the school systems! It is very sad that a majority of what is taught is very superficial and the dark aspects of our history are neatly tucked away.Very sad!

Considered a day of mourning in our house.

For skins [American Indians], Thanksgiving should be the Last Supper. 


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.

Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.  

—Dennis W. Zotigh

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 descendant 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.

The original version of this essay was published on November 23, 2011.

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We Dakota/Lakota people have a thanksgiving time, its called the Sun Dance and takes place in July of the year.

Well i grew up celebrating a day of family, food, thanks for what we have... i am glad i read this article. i never knew any truths about the past as far as the first thanksgiving. this is an enlightner of history that needs to be told...like a lot of other truths that need to be told about other tribes. history is what the non-indians want people to know. never want to put a blemish on their so called heroes of the past. Thanks and many Ah hos Dennis for writing and putting this out there for those of us that never knew...AH HO

For the past say 25 years I have tried to make anything but turkey
on thanksgiving thursday. I feel its the only thing I can personally do to show my true feelings. Yeah my kids have been as understanding as they can be and as they grow older and wiser they appreciate and respect my feelings. Its difficult at times to be different. I am a Mashpee Wampanoag and proud and thankful everyday of the year.

thanks for sharing this.

Thank you for this Reality Check...from one who trying to find her roots in such awakening.

Very good. I will share this on FB. For our family too, it's about being together with close friends and perhaps some who have no family in town. In elementary school there was the whole pilgrim thing, but once I became a teenager and learned more about history, I too realized the pilgrims were nothing to celebrate.

For Euramericans, Thanksgiving should be a Day of Atonement.

In the southeast, Harvest busk is like a thanksgiving for the community. It happens in the fall, and the community comes together to give thanks to the world for providing what was necessary to survive. It is the transition from female time of year to male time of year; from community-focus to family-oriented time of year. Thanksgiving in my family has always been a familial event. While the genocide of our people has always made this time of year a difficult burden to carry, I try to remember that those who do "re-enactments" with "indians" wearing construction paper feathers are simply ignorant of the past. Thanksgiving is not a time for everyone to celebrate a past event, it is a time to give thanks and celebrate your family in the PRESENT. Mvto!

I have shared this with on FB. I have shared the "real" story with my ESL classes. They, of course, are shocked to hear the truth. This has been a good lesson for them in critical literacy.
We will be praying today at our table for the opening of hearts and minds of all people. Blessings

I'm a Dine and do have mixed feelings in regards to integrating historical facts with a day set aside to just be, simply put, thankful. As for the historical aspects that surround the day, what holiday hasn't been tinged with some hypocricy or blatant cries of foul from both sides of the argument. I feel for my ancestors, but I am also an American. An American Indian who was abandoned by his mother and father and had no help from his tribe, but who was raised to respect all cultures and to not lean on a crutch of self pity but to rise above it. To understand that events that occured 100 to 500 years ago dont define me, but I will remember them. I respect the old ways, but they are just that. Old.. should they be forgotten? no. But we should not alienate native americans who chose to move on and integrate into mainstream America, why? what has it gotten us in the last 70 years with all the social programs in effect and doing nothing to further our plight on the rez??? NOTHING!!! I am thankful for my immediate family and I am thankful to live in a country that allows me to worship freely to choose my beliefs and to a nation that I chose to serve while in the Military. We need to stop bringing up past events, stop living in the past, live in the moment and live for tomorrow!

That is how we as Natives will prosper... LIVE!

On FB, I asked a friend of mine who works with Native Americans what they thought of Thanksgiving. I asked if they mark it the way we do Pearl Harbor Day or September 11th, because to them, Thanksiving must be the start of something terrible. A man named Yancey Red Corn responded and sent this link. I am very grateful to read the truth and understand how the Native Americans think. Thanks for posting this.

Please, keep up the fantastic work. In fact, I'm actually looking to become a writer, and your straightforward style has me very impressed. Once again, thanks for writing....

While I agree with Mr. Zotigh in his concern, the first thing is to correct in our own thinking that the Plymouth dinner in 1621 was the first time the Natives actually saved the Europeans and Natives were in turn punished. It was one hundred years before, in 1542, that the Pueblo Indians saved the life of Cabeza de Vaca and his group. There are so many other examples where the Natives saved the Europeans and then sat down as humans to give them food. And in each instance the Europeans then returned to help kill and displace those Natives. This is why we should take time at the European's thanksgiving to remind them that over and over again they give the Natives no reason to celebrate.
Ron Andrade, Los Angeles Indian Commission

Very good and informative post. My mother was Cherokee; met my dad who was a local sheriff back in '69.

I shared this on my facebook, I learnt something precious here, Thank you!

Thank you for this Reality Check. Thanksgiving should be a Day of Atonement.

Interesting and important information. It is really beneficial for us. Thanks

Thank you for sharing this informative article.Site design is good and very interesting blog. I really like it. Nice post.

Continue the wonderful good article, I just read couple of articles about this web page.

Very interesting information, in Greece we really like American Indian tradition.

As Far as I know, yes they do!

Admiring all the trouble you set into your blog. I explicit liked this post. Best regards

Great story, I'm glad I read it because I learned something from the past.

I am so glad to have found your enlightening information. I have Native American ancestors, and even as a little girl when it was required to make those little paper mache indians, I wondered even then why would the Native Americans have celebrated that day? They had everything taken from them that they loved. To this day because of having some Native American blood I don't always care to Celebrate THAT day. Heaven forbid I expressed this to others. I'd be the black sheep of the family(s).

I am working on our diversity newsletter and would like permission to print your article.
Thank you

Shelley: The museum is very happy to grant you permission to reprint Dennis's essay in your newsletter. Thank you for asking.

In retrospect to the holiday, it is very understandable that Thanksgiving is still considered a time of despair for some cultures. For many, the holiday is sure a great time for families and friends coming together and putting differences off to the side. For others, especially for some Native Americans, it can be a time of depression to one's heritage. Nonetheless, turkey and football tend to help overlook the Native American community's grief which the holiday has somewhat belittled them of their roots. Thanksgiving still carries it's pros and cons behind the roots of the holiday.

Thank you for sharing the history with us! I have also read that the first thanksgiving was actually a meeting of men only. And it was to discuss politics. I'm not sure of the facts behind that.

I am an American Indian. My brother and I were adopted as toddlers. We never knew our heritage, but that doesn't make us any less Indian. We are what we are. In some ways, I feel it is part of the tragedy. That we weren't raised in our own culture. Even though we are alive, we are somehow extinguished as Indians.

That being said, my sympathies lie completely in the middle. I can only imagine how it feels for generations of people to carry on stories that are not genuine. However, I feel instead of being angry about it as a culture, Indians should do something to change it. I am sure I am not alone in wondering, do Indians, as a group, want Americans to completely forget about the kindness the Indians showed them? Even in your story, kindness was shown by monks and others in England and New England. How can children honor Indians in elementary school? Don't forget children made pilgrim hats in school too! When we made feathers and bands in school, it was never done to demean Indians, it was intended to honor that day of peace. That's how it was in my school anyway. It may not have been done right, but the intent to do right was there. Why shouldn't Indians be included in the history of that day?

I think Indians could use Thanksgiving as both a remembrance of tragedy and a celebration of the strength of those who survived. Indians could use this as an opportunity to educate the American public about the true facts of the first thanksgiving. I believe just being angry about it will never make room for growth and peace. You mentioned yourself, that Indians gave thanks every day. These traditions could be taught to the world and carried on by everyone. I believe it is time to take these opportunities and change them into good. There is so much that the last surviving Indians can share and teach the world. If Indians could become our teachers and leaders, maybe some of the damage that was done by America's forefathers, could begin to be reversed by this generation and generations to come. I believe if we all can work together, amazing things can happen. Maybe fledgling groups can grow strong and flourish with the support of the nation.

At some point, if we want to survive to bring the truth to the next generations, we should find peace.

Excellent blog. Very interesting information. Information I didn't know about.

I am a History student in England and I am doing a Thesis on Inter-relations between the Natives in New England and the English, I would like permission to use this blog entry as part of my dissertation, of course I will reference it appropriately.

Harriet,

Yes, please feel free to cite Dennis Zotigh's post in your thesis. You may also want to read his recent reply to the same question about the 4th of July: http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2013/07/do-american-indians-celebrate-the-4th-of-july.html

Best regards.

Now this is the info I have been searching for my mini project. Thanks a lot!

Sonya Flores @ Dennis Zotigh, Damn brother I enjoyed your blog but with a heavy heart. When my kids were in pre- school is when I decided I needed to represent our people at this time of year more then any other. I would be damned if my kids were gonna wear paper bags like the other students. I wasn't having that.

I learned to get the story across at their age level and show them the beauty and generosity of our people. I remember growing up and my mom getn upset with me because on Thanksgiving day I would come to the dinner table in my p.js and hair unbrushed, knowing the day was not a celebration. But now that I'm a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 1, I understand as Native people we give thanks to the Creator everyday.

On Thanksgiving Day Im just grateful our people are still here and still stand strong. Thank you so much for your blog, I look forward to many more! Aho!

We spend the day with family are thankful for our family but give thanks everyday to our Creator. As a pre school teacher I never did the pilgrim thanksgiving lesson. I did catch a little backlash but in my class we did art projects about turkeys- My children were kept at home so as not to participate in thanksgiving plays.

I totally appreciate you sharing this. Most people honestly do not realize why American Indian's find it difficult to "celebrate" this day. Thankful for the Whites killing off the Native people? What?? It is hard to be thankful for SOME things at this time. I AM thankful that the American Indian has pursued thru the years...and I am part American Indian. Wa~do...

Good day thank you , for the information ... This was so cool .. .

Thank you for sharing this. We celebrate our meal with Native Traditional Food.

Thank you for taking the time, and educating us, I always wanted to know the truth.

I believe it should be a time to give thanks with family. I am Seneca from the Iroquois confederacy. We lost alot but have gained back much in southwestern New York..But I believe the truth should be told...We helped these strange people from another land and what was the return? At that time misery and death...

Im a mother,grand and greatgrandmother. I have tryed very hard to raise my children with wisdom to use their minds and question to take each and everyones thoughts as just that their thoughts always have compassion and love in their hearts but to know the truth on any of the study of man takes the study of all sides them maybe with gods help and the now study of genes and digging the bones from the earth we can learn more I can only see the miscarriage of right to put any people in bondage would have to be wrong. By the time we get to this age I dont think our family has missed out on any blood line, We got it all! Thank God for each and everyone. We love to celebrate thanksgiving in our family some hunt some eat some watch football some eat some love card games we have had 2 tables of pinocle pitch all kinds of board games. Games in the yard just what ever we had enough to play foot races grandmother against 2yr olds if you look through my note and see anything but love Ive missed my calling. We have somethat come over in ships and some that met them some fought for the north and some for the south but we can all come together for thanksgiving. Wish you could try my oklahoma cornbread dressing. God Bless

Yes we do

Can you post some information about what happened after the Pequot massacre? People should know about how the Thanksgiving "tradition" evolved down to the present day - when it became a national holiday and why. Perhaps a boomlet in school essays for Heritage Month is called for - all around the country!

Thank you so much, Dennis! This is the first time I read something about Thanksgiving that actually makes sense even to my European mind...

As an ESL teacher I am supposed to present to my students the culture of the English-speaking world, and I have had trouble explaining what Thanksgiving is, primarily because I myself could not figure out what this day is about.
I am well aware that it is just the nature of holidays that their present form is very different from what it was hundreds of years ago, so the present-day Thanksgiving myth is not surprising for me. However, I was really missing original historical information and also the other side of the story.
Now I know what to teach.

Thank you for this blog post. As a person of mixed eastern (Jewish) and western (Christian) European ancestry I am familiar with the hypocritical nature of celebrations of joy and thanksgiving. As a Quaker I have learned that in addition to many honest dealings with indigenous Americans my chosen religious group participated in founding and running some of those horrendous Indian boarding schools. I myself was not born yet to participate in either the good or the bad things of the past, but I am here now. I hope and pray that those of us living today will bravely face our true histories and continue our lives with humility as well as self respect, that we recognize that of God in every person, and that we do all the we can for good as way opens.

To my knowledge I am not American Indian. However, I have always admired and felt a kinship with their beliefs and ways. What was done to the native peoples is a travesty and disgrace. Not just this specific incident, but through out history. I had never heard these facts, but plan to share. In our family we just celebrate our family and thank the creator that we can be together.

Greeting in the name of the Great Spirit.
May you find joy in each day of thanks.
The history of this day will never be fully known, as too many ills have past to NOT be mindful of. We continue to give thanks each day as normal, but do not forget what happened and is still happening. Over the many moons, Great Leaders have spoken on this subject. Not much of it is good, but they also said to continue our celebrating our thanks for the day.
THEY can NEVER regain the trust they lost then, and have remained resolute in ignoring true history.
This falls on them and is NOT ours to 'cure'. Let us remember how we are still proud members of a society with better morals

To my knowledge, none of us were around in 1621, but I think we're missing the point here. Why would you not celebrate it? If it was only for a day or three, it still was a time that for that short period people from very different backgrounds came together as what they are gods creations. The great creator didn't just create Native Americans, he created everyone. I think we need to reflect on periods in history that people are able to put differences aside and enjoy the moment. I think the world needs more of that. Europeans, starting with Columbus were very cruel to the "Indians" as he called them. The early explorers such as De Soto, Pizarro, Cortez wiped out whole tribes and it didn't stop there. Who can forget the trail of tears. These are all black days and a blot on the American past. Unfortunately throughout history, one group of people has found it necessary to extinguish another group. You have the Egyptians and Israelites, the Romans and anybody else, Hitler and the Jews...It just goes on and on.

For my way of thinking, we should strive to celebrate brotherhood, just as I would like to think those people did so long ago. On thanksgiving I WILL have turkey and give thanks for all the blessings the creator has bestowed on me during the year. To me the lesson I took from my school was how the Native Americans came to the aid of the Europeans and saved them from distinction. By celebrating now, I think we take that long look back and honor our brothers. To paint this as a black period for either side, in my opinion is wrong. There were plenty of other black periods, but I don't think this was one.

Wanishi
(Lenape for Thank you)
Some of us are starting to hold educational events on Red/Black Friday.

Ankuntuwakan!
(Blessings to you)
~RuthAnn


after some 88 years, I have finally traced my Roots back to John Howard and Elizabeth Tilley, passengers on the Mayflower. Having read 'Mayflower' and learning of the violation of the Natives, I was less than proud.
Ironically, my widowed grand mother married an Osage gentleman from Oklahoma: circa 1930 He would dance and sing, in his Native language, in their parlor in Brooklyn.
As I moved from NY to MN, 1970, I wanted to learn about the Natives of this State and enrolled in the American Indian Studies at U MN and had an Ojibwe teacher that enlightened us about the culture and language of her people. Also took other classes regarding treaties, reservation creation etc
Upon Retirement I did lectures to schools and Retirement Homes; calculated some 10,000 people that I 'enlightened'.
I have stayed with the Cree, Ojibwe and Hopi People on their reservations and have helped some in many financial ways.
Also, I have grand children with Cherokee, Mayan, and Inca ancestors.
Perhaps some of these good deeds will make up for the tragedy of the 'Christians' that brought on the King Philip War and all leading up to Wooded Knee and today; I did attend the Commeration there in 1990.

I really appreciate your information and clarity. I guess I still have a question in my mind. You talked about the first Thanksgiving as being a mutual celebration and coming together of two peoples. May I ask, if that is what some are remembering, despite the horrible and tragic future results Years later, is that such an awful thing? Would it not be good to remember the moment where all came together for good? AND also teaching the terrible future atrocities that happened as well. Long story short, can we not celebrate the good in that moment, while still remembering and learning from the bad?