Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

A Native American holiday: Giving thanks without all the trappings

Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday the way most of us are going to. Neither will plenty of other Native Americans.

Surprised? Then you’re way too close to the papier mache, elementary school version of the Thanksgiving feast, presented as a Disneyesque love fest between the Pilgrims and the Indians.

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Lots of the country’s 5.2 million American Indians don’t see it that way at all.

“It makes me really mad — the Thanksgiving myth and what happens on Friday,” said Zotigh, who is a Kiowa, Santee Dakota and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Indian. He thinks the holiday, filled with stereotypes about Native Americans, damages Indians and non-Indians.

“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,” Zotigh wrote on the Smithsonian museum’s blog.

Think about it: Thanksgiving winds up being a pretty grim day in Native American history. After the Indians helped the ragged colonists survive and introduced them to their tradition of a harvest feast, what did the colonists do in response? Nearly destroyed a civilization.

We like to be all gooey about family and cranberry sauce and football. But the day in 1621 when the Wampanoags feasted with the starving colonists was the beginning of one huge bloody betrayal of the people who were here first.

The National Day of Mourning is what the United American Indians of New England has called it since 1970, when they first led a march and protest to the area known as Plymouth Rock.

Zotigh said he’s heard from Native American parents who sign their kids out of school on the day of their Thanksgiving reenactments. Their children have been punished in class for bringing up the American Indian’s side of the story and demanding that “the national moral atrocity of genocide” be acknowledged. Some simply call the day of national gorging “The Last Supper.”

Zotigh remembers having to bring a paper bag to school to make his costume for the reenactment of the big feast, complete with cartoonish, construction-paper feathers and headdresses.

This week? He’s going to keep it simple and have some chili with friends.

The Native Americans I talked to said they’ve all heard of someone who doesn’t celebrate the holiday the way it’s presented in food magazines and Hallmark television specials. But all the people I talked to said they hold on to the original message that the Wampanoag had that day — a harvest feast to give thanks.

“Thanksgiving is like every day for us. Giving thanks is a big part of the native cultures. So the basic message of the holiday, that’s still part of who we are,” said Ben Norman, 32, a member of the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia.

His tribe’s chief, Kevin Brown, said he travels to reservations all across America. and he hears about folks who won’t celebrate Thanksgiving. “But most people I know, we love eating and we love being together with family. And that’s what this day is about,” said Brown, 58.

“I’m too busy eating and watching football to spend my life worrying about the past,” he said.

His favorite part of the meal? “Turkey. Not fried, just plain cooked, Betty Crocker style,” he said. “And venison, we have venison too.”

Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Nation representative who has been the primary spokesman for the campaign to get the Washington Redskins to change its name, takes a similar approach to Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving comes out of our culture,” said Halbritter, who himself is a stuffing and squash kind of guy. “It’s a wonderful time to reflect on being thankful, to be with family, to celebrate our blessings. It really comes from our harvest celebrations.”

Halbritter’s point, the one he makes when he’s talking football, is that American Indians don’t want to be thought of as relics or mascots. And actively celebrating a harvest feast, rather than dwelling on the injustices by the colonists that came after that day, is one of those ways to keep a culture alive and relevant.

“That’s one of the reasons we do the Thanksgiving parade,” he said. The Oneida Nation has a big turtle island float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York every year. And they say it’s to remind Americans of that first meeting, that day when they helped and trusted.

For Native Americans, Black Friday represents the holiday’s final slap in the face. “You know that’s supposed to be our heritage day?” Zotigh asked.

Yes, the Friday after Thanksgiving is designated as the country’s official day to pay homage to Indian heritage and culture. Somehow, I just don’t think that hand-to-hand combat over a big screen is what the Wampanoag had in mind.

Please, for once, listen to the people who were on this land first. Keep it simple. Just give thanks.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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