Thanksgiving’s ‘bitter irony’

Native Americans say they still gave thanks, but the feast leaves a different taste.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

You were told as a child Thanksgiving dinner is about commemorating the friendly feast shared between the Indians and the goodhearted pilgrims.

But as most Americans know, that story is a myth that âÄî four centuries later âÄî we still have difficulty unpacking, confronting and critiquing.

The history of Thanksgiving is about competing narratives of this countryâÄôs tortured past. The story thatâÄôs often overlooked is that of domination and conquest, which has a lasting impact on Native Americans still today.

But the settler narrative dominates how the holiday is traditionally celebrated, according to Pat Nunnally, a University of Minnesota professor at the Institute on the Environment. Historically, various feasts âÄî not just one âÄî took place to celebrate both harvests and massacres, he said.

“The notion that thereâÄôs a Thanksgiving is like the notion that thereâÄôs one place the pilgrims landed. The truth is, they landed in several locations and there were several feasts,” he said. “ItâÄôs easy to fall into the celebration idea. The truth has become obscured by the meaning we want it to have.”

The meaning we want Thanksgiving to have is one of giving thanks, of unity, of cooperation âÄî all praiseworthy ideals. But in our effort to paint a rosy picture of our past, we forget that our place on this land came with a price much costlier than a feast: land theft, murder and what some would call genocide. I donâÄôt see a national conversation or a comprehensive effort to memorialize the significance of this history to Native Americans, which is imperative to attain justice.

University of Minnesota junior Autumn Cavender-Wilson, an American Indian studies major, was eight years old when she began to recognize the dominant narrative of her culture and of Thanksgiving as problematic.

“My third grade teacher would read books out loud,” she said. “We got to the part in the âÄòLittle House on the PrairieâÄô where it states that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, and she continued the lesson without a blink of an eye.”

Thanksgiving is a myth that even Native Americans have been force-fed growing up, said Cavender-Wilson, who is of the Dakota nation from the upper Sioux community.

“ItâÄôs a national day celebrating a massacre rather than something more genuine, so itâÄôs the ideological issues behind having it as a national holiday that are problematic,” she said.

The massacre she refers to is called the 1637 Pequot Massacre. It was triggered by 90 armed settlers who burned villages and killed several Pequot people in an endeavor to avenge the death of a pilgrim.

After killing 700 Pequot, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared Thanksgiving a day of thanking God for victory.

Later, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday to unite the country over the mythological story of the feast, after which he signed an executive order leading to the execution of 38 Minnesotan Dakota people.

Despite this ugly past, the Native Americans I spoke with all said Thanksgiving has become a commonly celebrated holiday within the community. But each family and reservation adds something unique to the tradition.

Art Coulson, former senior editor and editorial page editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is of the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma. He told me he uses Thanksgiving to discuss the contributions of Native Americans with his kids.

“We talk about the old ways of doing things, some things we might have eaten or the history of our tribe because those things [my children] are not going to get in school,” he explained.

He said some Native Americans choose not to celebrate because they donâÄôt want to buy into the commercialized notion of the holiday, and he respects that.

“But I see it as a conversation that people can have,” Coulson said. “And IâÄôm not going to tell other people how to celebrate their holidays.”

Brent Michael Davids of the Stockbridge-Mohican nation told me the celebration of Thanksgiving varies across reservations, depending on the extent of Christianization.

The more Christianized a reservation, the more likely it will celebrate Thanksgiving as a religious holiday thanking God.

Davids speaks from a unique platform in many ways. The Wisconsinite is an atheist and a composer âÄî a rare combination in his community âÄî and the founder of the First Nations Composer Initiative, an organization for Native American composers and musicians.

His clan, the Turtle clan, is the only one left of the Mohican tribe. But Davids is also half English. His mother is a direct descendant of Edward Doty, a Mayflower pilgrim.

ThereâÄôs a possibility that his ancestors on both sides fought in Massachusetts, which he said conflicts him.

“America is a mixed bag. ItâÄôs founded upon murder, and thatâÄôs what people donâÄôt want to look at,” he said. “ItâÄôs not just Thanksgiving that gets forgotten, but itâÄôs Native people in general that are considered invisible.”

Still, Davids said, he celebrates Thanksgiving because of the Native tradition of giving thanks.

Discussing this history over a turkey dinner is not a pragmatic way to address complex issues like land return, but I donâÄôt think ending Thanksgiving as a holiday is a solution, either.

Cavender-Wilson, the University junior, agreed that she celebrates the holiday over a stereotypical Thanksgiving dinner. For her, giving thanks for what you have and celebrating a big harvest feast is very much a Native concept and a global concept.

“But itâÄôs definitely not without its tone of bitter irony,” she said.


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments
at [email protected]