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Why Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily a celebration: a Native American writer’s take

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It’s that time of year again. As the season turns, so does our attention to Native Americans. It’s Native American Heritage Month, and ironically, of course, the month we celebrate Thanksgiving. Or maybe it isn’t irony but something else. It’s that we celebrate the holiday while trying to acknowledge the history of a people often remembered wrong. So the celebratory spirit feels wrong, because we still aren’t willing to acknowledge what actually happened. Kids in schools dress up as Indians and Pilgrims as if it were a nice meal and a peaceable time generally, even after the fact.

Plenty of native people still celebrate the holiday, too. Everyone has the time off, and no one is against gratitude. It’s complicated. And I would never condemn a native person or family for having a meal together. The problem is deep and systemic. I don’t have any good answers about what to do instead or whether people should continue to celebrate the holiday. Thinking about what actually happened is a good start. Talking about it, even if the meal still happens, is a good beginning. But what actually happened, and according to whom, further complicates things.

What does it mean to be a Native American? A new book offers a bracing answer.

It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about months of the year singled out to celebrate any people or culture or history anyway. It’s sort of like being a Native American author or writer. White men get to be writers. White people and history according to them get the rest of the attention when it’s not one of the months. And here I am, worried again about sounding mad or angry or bitter — about what exactly? A celebration of my people?

It’s just that we recently watched native people getting shot with rubber bullets while praying to keep clean water and not have a pipeline get put into the ground. And, of course, we have a president in office whose favorite president in history was the worst for Native Americans, Andrew Jackson.

Not that I want to complain. It’s been a good year for native people in the arts, including me. In addition to my novel, “There There,” we also had Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir “Heart Berries,” Tommy Pico’s poetry collection “Junk,” Billy-Ray Belcourt’s memoir-in-poems “This Wound Is a World” and Brandon Hobson’s novel “Where the Dead Sit Talking.”

Those of us who try to express ourselves in the arts with the hope of helping other people understand us — and to possibly make some kind of change in the world — have to celebrate when we are being paid attention to.

In that spirit, I’d like to draw your attention to some works from over the years that I think are important, highly accessible — and just very good. The following books I loved and were formative for me:

'Winter in the Blood,'

by James Welch

James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood” was the first native novel I read. I’d avoided reading books by native writers for so long because reservation stories made me feel less native, since I didn’t have that specific experience. I didn’t read “Winter in the Blood” until roughly 2008, more than three decades after it was written. I hadn’t read anything in the native canon and had come into literature through a strange kind of self-made back door. I’d read mostly works in translation. “Winter in the Blood” is told through the perspective of a native man living in Montana. What the book is about is less important to me than how well the sentences in it are crafted. The book explores one native man’s experience, the way he moves toward his identity in a small town in Montana and is at the same time pushed back by its challenges. The book is brilliant, brutal and, in my opinion, Welch’s best work. (See also a movie based on the book that came out in 2013).

'Love Medicine,'

by Louise Erdrich

I’ve always loved books told from the perspectives of a wide cast of characters. This is not something a lot of readers love, I’ve learned. Louise Erdrich debuted with “Love Medicine” in 1984. The writing in this book, which follows many different people, families and experiences, is so strong and distinct. It walks the reader through so many kinds of voices in a world that, at the time it came out, so few people knew or understood. It brings to light something wholly new about a people trying to grapple with a kind of life more Americans should absolutely try to understand.

'Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong,' by Paul Chaat Smith

'The Inconvenient Indian,' by Thomas King

Sometimes native people are expected to know everything about natives in America. Sometimes it feels like that is one of the many requirements to be authentic or legitimate. If you feel as if you don’t know anything, or that what you know might be wrong — whether you’re native or not — these two books are either a great place to start or a great place to start reassessing what you think you might know.

Tommy Orange, the author of the novel “There There,” teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

Read more:

Yes, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is racially insensitive — but we should still read it

What Makes Someone Native American?

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