Parents share how they're centering Indigenous culture this Thanksgiving

Native educators share how to center Indigenous peoples at Thanksgiving gatherings. (Illustrations © 2022 by Garry Meeches Sr. from Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story)
Native educators share how to center Indigenous peoples at Thanksgiving gatherings. (Illustrations © 2022 by Garry Meeches Sr. from Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story)

When children learn about Thanksgiving in school, they are often told a centuries-old myth: Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution and “Indians” held a feast to give thanks for a bountiful harvest that helped them survive a hard winter. They lived happily ever after, in harmony, as Americans.

However, that story bears little resemblance to reality. Many Native Americans observe Thanksgiving as a day of mourning because that meeting actually led to widespread death among the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and nearly obliterated their way of life. Up to 90% of the Wampanoag, the tribe the Pilgrims encountered upon their arrival, died from disease. As more immigrants arrived from Europe, they displaced Native peoples from their ancestral lands. Subsequently, the United States government took drastic steps to force Indigenous peoples to assimilate, including tearing families apart and other abusive measures. This was anything but a happy ending.

Today, Native educators like Renée Gokey, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and author Anthony Perry, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, are trying to reframe Thanksgiving. Perry hopes that one day a new, default story will emerge that centers Native peoples. Culturally responsive psychologist and mother Dr. Anjali Ferguson thinks this is important. “When we overly glamorize or glorify the false unity of the time, we are erasing the harm that Indigenous communities experienced with colonization,” Ferguson tells Yahoo Life.

There are many ways families can reframe Thanksgiving.

Tell a more accurate story

Perry says that in telling a more accurate Thanksgiving story, it’s not necessary to make the Pilgrims “evil.” Instead, in Keepunumuk, the Charlesbridge-published picture book he co-authored with fellow Native authors Danielle Greendeer and Alexis Bunten, the story of Thanksgiving is told from the viewpoint of the Wampanoag. Ferguson says that telling a more accurate Thanksgiving story can be done as simply as telling children, “This country was discovered a long time ago, but when Pilgrims arrived here and started making a home, they took from the people that lived here already.” She recommends that parents follow up by asking children, “How might you feel if someone came to your home and took your things?” Parents can add more details and ask more complex questions as children get older.

Recognize the diversity of Native Americans

In the traditional Thanksgiving story, there is a mythical “Indian" who is nondescript. Gokey believes this is harmful because there is so much diversity among Native Americans, of which there are 574 federally recognized tribes. Perry recognizes that many tribes have some things in common, including respect for nature and a strong sense of culture, but many are more different than alike. There are different cultural practices, beliefs, languages, traditions and viewpoints both among the tribes and between individual members of those tribes, Gokey emphasizes. When discussing Thanksgiving, Perry and Gokey both think it’s important to teach that Pilgrims encountered the Wampanoag tribe specifically and that there were, and still are, many other tribes, each with its own culture.

Expand your interest in Native culture

Gokey says that discussion of Native peoples and the issues important to them should not “be relegated to just one day” and should not focus only on Native Americans in the 17th century. Instead, part of the discussion surrounding Thanksgiving should focus on teaching children that Native Americans still live throughout the Americas and have strong, vibrant cultures. Gokey recommends seeking out Native-authored stories that are often overlooked, such as those by Native women and books about the urban Native experience. The National Museum of the American Indian, where Gokey works, has online resources to learn about modern Native life and there are several books written by Native authors that can help children understand how Indigenous peoples live today. “We were here first and we are still here,” says Perry, lamenting that many seem to lose interest in Native American history and culture as soon as Thanksgiving is over.

“We were here first and we are still here,” says Keepunumuk co-author Anthony Perry. (Photo: Illustrations © 2022 by Garry Meeches Sr. from Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story)
“We were here first and we are still here,” says Keepunumuk co-author Anthony Perry. (Photo: Illustrations © 2022 by Garry Meeches Sr. from Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story)

Center Native people

The default Thanksgiving story centers the Pilgrims and their struggles instead of the Native Americans they encountered. Perry and Gokey suggest reframing Thanksgiving to focus on the Native peoples who were already here when the Pilgrims arrived. “The story starts with the Indigenous people that stewarded the land for thousands of years,” says Gokey. Parent Alexandra Fung takes this approach with her children, “We try to reframe the focus on how the Pilgrims must have been so thankful for this lifesaving outreach and gesture of goodwill from strangers,” she says.

Learn about the Native people who lived where you live now

An easy way to reframe Thanksgiving is to learn about the Native people who lived on the land where you now live, information that can be accessed via digital maps of Native lands. "We already know we live on unceded Arapahoe and Cheyenne land," says Colorado-based parent Leah Charney. "This year we will talk more about those peoples and what their lives were like before colonization.”

Eat Native dishes

Food is always a big part of Thanksgiving celebrations. It’s also a big part of Native culture, says Gokey. If you'd like to serve Native dishes, Perry recommends making Nasamp, a simple traditional Wampanoag dish made from cornmeal, nuts, berries and maple syrup. Gokey recommends seeking out Native peoples who are still growing foods such as wild rice and buying from them. Ferguson makes it a point to serve a Native dish on Thanksgiving and she discusses its Indigenous origins with her family.

Research the roots of your culture’s traditional foods

A majority of the world’s food supply originates from North America. Much of that was cultivated by the Native peoples who stewarded the land before the Pilgrims arrived. According to Gokey, that means that many of the dishes from any given culture have Indigenous roots, including potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, avocados, rice, corn and berries. She suggests that families discuss how their own cultures use and have adapted these Native foods. This shows we are “all connected,” and “builds friendship,” says Gokey.

Honor the earth

Nature is such a big part of Native culture,” says Perry. That makes Thanksgiving a great time to start an environmental project or discuss how different actions impact the environment. Gokey recommends cleaning up a nearby creek or lake as a form of water protection, but gardening, planting seeds or simply going on a walk and collecting litter are all ways to honor the deep respect Native Americans have for nature.

Give thanks

Perry explains that giving thanks is an integral part of Native culture and that many Indigenous peoples give thanks every day. With this in mind, rather than focusing on the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving, many families focus on giving thanks. Thanksgiving is also a great opportunity to discuss this part of Native culture. “I like to think the intentions of the day are to focus on reflecting and giving thanks for what we have in our lives,” says Ferguson, adding that while doing so her family acknowledges what so many have lost. Masha Rumer and her family also focuses on giving thanks. “Since I'm an immigrant, we always give thanks for the opportunity to live in the United States and for being welcomed as refugees,” she says.

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